Incoming SSMU president Zach Newburgh threatened to take legal action against McGill’s chapter of Solidarity for Palestinian Human Rights (SPHR) on April 3 if the group refused to drop their Judicial Board hearing within 48 hours, according to two sources.
SPHR allowed the deadline to expire, and the Judicial Board meeting went ahead as scheduled Friday night. As the Daily went to press, a lawsuit had not been filed.
SPHR called for a Judicial Board hearing on March 17, accusing Newburgh of bias while chairing the February 10 General Assembly (GA).
The Judicial Board heard the case on Friday evening, but has not made a ruling.
One of the motions voted on at the GA was submitted by SPHR, and called for SSMU to establish a committee that “will thoroughly investigate McGill University’s involvement with companies on the basis of negative ethnical practices.”
The preamble of the motion mentioned the Israel-Palestine conflict within the context of ethical investments and boycotts, drawing ire from pro-Israel campus groups.
SPHR holds that there was a conflict of interest, given that Newburgh is the president of Hillel Montreal, the umbrella organization that links the various anglophone Hillel student groups on Montreal campuses, including Hillel McGill.
When the motion was brought to the floor of the GA, the clauses referencing Israel-Palestine were struck by popular vote.
SPHR cited a January 28 meeting between SPHR and Hillel McGill members, attended by Newburgh. According to Nafay Choudhury, lead counsel for SPHR, the two parties adjourned for five minutes, and Newburgh spent the break in private with the members of Hillel McGill.
“The conversation Hillel McGill [had in private] points to what we don’t know,” said Choudhury. “No equivalent meeting was held with SPHR.”
However, both Newburgh and Hillel McGill president Mookie Kideckel claimed that Newburgh refused to voice an opinion for the entire duration of the meeting, including the private meetings.
“Zach refused to say anything. We wanted him to say something, but he didn’t,” said Kideckel.
One key issue from the January meeting involved GA procedure, specifically whether a preamble clause could be amended. Newburgh confirmed that he told both parties at the meeting that such clauses could not be amended. The night before the GA, Newburgh received a call from Corey Omer, the clubs and services representative to SSMU and VP (External) of Hillel McGill, who directed him to a passage in Robert’s Rules – the legislative procedure for General Assemblies – stating that preamble clauses could be amended after certain motions had been passed. SPHR said they were not made aware of the change until Newburgh brought it up in the assembly.
“It took everyone somewhat aback,” said Choudhury.
Newburgh’s lead counsel, Max Reed, said that it was unrealistic to expect the speaker of council to know every rule in the 600-page Robert’s Rules book. SPHR countered that, as speaker, it was his job to know all of Robert’s Rules.
SPHR claimed they had begun to review Robert’s Rules before the GA, but that their meeting was disrupted when they discovered SPHR member Alexa Romanelli’s Facebook account had been hacked, cancelling the GA event she was administrating. McGill security was unable to trace the hack.
SPHR also contended that Newburgh’s bias was revealed during the GA when he threatened vocal members of the assembly with ejection, but failed to act on these claims.
Reed said that Newburgh followed all of Robert’s Rules to the letter, including the speaker’s ability to eject members of the GA.
“A motion must come from the floor [to eject members of the Assembly],” said Reed, implying that Newburgh was not legally allowed to follow up on his threats.
“If the motion passed without incident, if everyone was perfectly happy, Mr. Newburgh would still be biased – which in my opinion makes no sense,” concluded Reed.
Newburgh confirmed during the hearing that he made SSMU aware that there could be a perceived conflict of interest if he chaired the Winter GA. Newburgh said SSMU president Ivan Neilson told him he would chair the GA anyway. Newburgh said that these facts undermine the SPHR allegation of a conflict of interest.
“Their arguments don’t seem to hold,” said Newburgh. “I myself knew that there was potential conflict of interest. I had given full disclosure to the executive and they gave me full support. They told me that as an employee, I would be doing my job chairing the meeting.”
Max Silverman, former SSMU VP (External), thought Newburgh had performed well at the GA, given that it was a highly-charged, divisive event.
“I think Zach actually did a pretty good job, all things considered,” he said.
Silverman sent a Facebook message to Newburgh expressing a similar sentiment after the GA. Newburgh cited the message in his respondent factum before the hearing, but when Silverman learned of it, he issued Newburgh a cease and desist order, and the message was pulled from the factum.
Despite Newburgh’s performance at the GA, Silverman said that even the appearance of a conflict of interest undermines the process.
“Regardless of how highly one thinks of Zach, the optics of it make it appear as if there would be a conflict of interest and the mere appearance of a conflict of interest can delegitimize the process,” said Silverman.
Neilson said that Newburgh was in danger of having this rift with SPHR define his presidency, but was confident in Newburgh’s ability to reconcile with SPHR, as well as all other student groups.
“Regardless of the outcome, he’s just going to have to work a little bit harder to demonstrate not only to the members of SPHR, but really to everyone, that that’s not what defines his presidency, that he really brings something more to the table, that he won’t allow this to be a distraction, and really not to try to ignore the past, but just to try to move on and proactively engage student groups,” said Neilson
“I don’t think he’s trying to bring an overly aggressive attitude, despite whatever facts are floating around,” said Neilson. “I think that…he’s seeking mediation, that he’s trying to find a solution, and that next year he will bring that sort of attitude to any other conflict.”
SPHR’s factum calls for a public reprimand of Newburgh by the Judicial Board or an official apology from him.
—with files from Stephen Davis