Four weeks after the Students’ Society’s Winter General Assembly, the SSMU Judicial Board has accepted a submission from members of Solidarity for Palestinian Human Rights concerning the impartiality of Zach Newburgh, the current speaker of SSMU Council and next year’s SSMU president.
In the petitioner’s factum, which was submitted on March 17, SPHR claims that as chair of the GA, Newburgh “placed himself in a serious conflict of interest, making it impossible for him to perform his task in an impartial manner,” particularly during the debate over the motion re: The Defence of Human Rights, Social Justice, and Environmental Protection. The group asserts that there were three main factors which made Newburgh an unsuitable mediator for this semester’s GA: his association with Hillel Montreal as the orgainization’s president; his friendship with Mookie Kideckel, the president of Hillel McGill (and a Tribune columnist), and his previous role in opposition to the Gaza motion at the Winter GA last year.
“We have a lot of facts that show that Zach is biased, in particular in which he shows that he was involved as a representative of Hillel in trying to negotiate a settlement before the GA,” said Raed Khuffash, a member of the SPHR executive. “So this shows that he was already involved in the process which makes him unfit to be the speaker at the GA.”
Newburgh, however, questioned the validity of the accusations levied against him.
“I’m surprised that my impartiality is being put into question, especially given the impartiality I’ve displayed during my tenure as speaker of Council,” he said. “As speaker, I have displayed throughout my term that I am able to be impartial in matters of personal interest and in matters of a personal stake that are up for debate.”
In the factum, SPHR alleges that Newburgh’s bias led him to allow “a vote to proceed calling for the striking of clauses 6 and 7 of the preamble,” as well as his decision to disallow debate and discussion prior to the vote. The group is arguing that, by allowing these preamble amendments, Newburgh broke four years of precedent at SSMU GAs. Newburgh, however, said that after consulting with co-Speaker Lauren Hudak, SSMU President Ivan Neilson, and Vice-President Clubs and Services Sarah Olle, he decided to follow the procedure as laid out in Robert’s Rules of Order.
“We decided it was something that, yes, would make precedent, but amending the preamble to a resolution is indeed possible, and we should be following Robert’s Rules,” Newburgh said. “I have an obligation to uphold Robert’s Rules to the best of my ability.”
In their factum, the remedies proposed by SPHR are that the Judicial Board “Declare that the Respondent has acted in dereliction of his official duty as Speaker of the General Assembly and with a reasonable apprehension of bias and a conflict of interest,” and thus issue a public censure, and that Newburgh issue a public apology acknowledging that he acted in “dereliction of duty.”
Although the Judicial Board Terms of Reference state that any submission must be submitted within 10 days of the incident, the group was granted an extension after approaching the Board approximately a week after the GA. Neilson explained that it is within the purview of the Board to grant such extensions.
“The Judicial Board procedures are really just suggestions,” he said, “because according to the constitution, they can establish their own rules of order, which they actually have done in this case by accepting an application more than 10 days after the event in question.”
Both Khufash and SPHR VP Internal Urooj Nizami said that if they could secure the same remedy through mediation, SPHR would be willing to settle the case outside of Judicial Board.
“This is not a personal case of SPHR against anyone. We feel like we are representing the student body in this case,” Nizami said. “SPHR’s name is on [the factum] and I signed it, but we feel that … SSMU affects the entire student body and we feel that what was done affects everyone.”
– Additional reporting by Theo Meyer