UBC student Logan Presch has submitted a petition to the BC Supreme Court asking that the AMS be prohibited from putting forward the following referendum question: “Do you support your student union (AMS) in boycotting products and divesting from companies that support Israeli war crimes, illegal occupation and the oppression of Palestinians?”
A referendum posing this question to all UBC students is currently planned for April 3 to 7.
The referendum was originally supposed to be held earlier — either during the AMS Elections or the last week of March — but was postponed after a court order was secured by Presch and his legal representation.
It may be cancelled if the court rules in favour of Presch after a hearing on March 27.
“The Proposed Question is divisive, creates a toxic atmosphere for students supportive of the state of Israel, and is destructive of open and respectful debate on an important issue,” his petition reads.
The referendum is a part of the global BDS (boycott, divestment and sanctions) movement, which calls for an end to Israeli occupation in West Bank and Gaza and support for the rights of Palestinian refugees and Palestinians currently living in Israel.
In the AMS’s official response to the petition, they take no position on the order sought by Presch, saying only that if the court grants it, they believe that the matter ought to be remitted to the AMS with “directions to determine if the Proposed Question violates the provisions of its Consitution, By-laws or Code of Conduct.”
A referendum is called for one of two reasons — either AMS Council has passed a resolution to hold one, or a petition has been signed by at least 1,000 students. In this case, the BDS petition on the question was signed by 1,000 eligible students. Referendums can only be phrased in a “yes-or-no” format for students to answer when voting. Whether this rule has been complied with will be determined by AMS Council.
If in the opinion of Council a petition for a referendum does not meet this requirement, they require Student Court to prepare a clear and unambiguous question.
The petition filed by Presch brought forward three main concerns with the BDS referendum.
Unity and good will
Presch’s petition to the court argues that the referendum goes against Section 2(e) of the AMS’s constitution, which notes the objective of the AMS is to “promote unity and good will among its members.” The AMS’s Mission Statement also notes this commitment, adding that it will also “encourage free and open debate, as well as respect for differing views.”
The petition noted that a concern for safety arises in part from the response during the first time the referendum was posed in the spring of 2015.
“The Proposed Question drove a wedge between religious groups on campus who had previously enjoyed inter-faith outreach and collaboration,” reads the petition. “Students outwardly opposed to the [referendum when it was first posed] encountered a hostile reaction and there were reported acts of anti-Semitism on campus.”
For example, posters opposing the referendum in 2015 were defaced and lawn signs were kicked down.
As also noted in Presch’s petition to the court, when the referendum was brought up again this year, the AMS did make efforts to enforce their Respectful Environment Policy and attempted to have all relevant groups resign a copy of the policy.
“The VP Administration and myself did take the time to sit down with any relevant groups that may be affected by this question, whether they are on the peripherals of proposing the question or opposing the question,” said AMS President Ava Nasiri.
“Some clubs were willing to sign this and other clubs were not. It’s only as effective as the members are willing to allow it to be.”
However, in their official response to the petition, the AMS noted that their bylaws and code of procedure do not require them to consider the purposes set out in the Constitution when putting forward a verified referendum question. However, the Societies Act does require that societies must not carry out an exercise contrary to its purpose.
“If this Honourable Court determines that, under the Societies Act, the UBC AMS must consider whether the Proposed Question is contract to the purposes set out in the UBC AMS Constitution, then the UBC AMS respectfully submits that the matter ought [to be remitted] to the UBC AMS to determine that question,” reads the AMS’s response to the petition.
“Meaningful” yes or no
The petition states that the current referendum question violates the AMS Code requirement that “the question shall be phrased in such a way that it can be ‘yes’ or ‘no.’”
“The proposed question is not capable of a meaningful ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer,” reads the petition.
The document further argues that, objectively, it is hard to know what a “yes” answer to the proposed question means.
“The proposed question leaves entirely ambiguous what constitutes ‘support’ for the alleged ‘war crimes,’” said the petition. “[It] makes it difficult for a student who may disapprove of some policies and actions of the Israeli Government, but does not endorse the view that Israel is committing war crimes, to understand the significance of a ‘yes’ vote.”
In response, the AMS said that the word “meaningful” does not appear in either the code or the by-laws when addressing the running of a referendum.
“It is Council’s discretion,” noted the document.
The petitioner alleges that the proposed referendum is improper because it does not disclose the contracts the AMS will be required to break if it passes. As an example, they refer to MasterCard and its usage, especially at The Pit, as well as Starbucks and its presence on campus.
In response, the AMS said that the passing of the referendum question would not break any contracts.
Should the petition to the court be unsuccessful — as will be determined during the hearing on March 27 — the referendum will go on as planned on April 3. If it is successful, then what happens next will depend on what the court orders.
“Until ordered otherwise, we’re just doing our best to follow protocol laid out for us in our bylaws,” said Nasiri.