Court backs students in TAU row over Falun Gong exhibit the university removed

Court backs students in

A Tel Aviv District Court judge on Wednesday ruled that Tel Aviv University had "violated freedom of expression and succumbed to pressure from the Chinese Embassy" when it took down a student exhibition last year that focused on the oppression of the Falun Gong spiritual movement at the hands of the Communist Chinese government. The exhibition, which featured 25 paintings by 17 artists from around the world, depicted Falun Gong spiritual practices and the torture and executions its members have reportedly been subjected to in recent years. The movement, which is based on an ancient Chinese meditation method that aims to bring its practitioners to higher spiritual enlightenment, was outlawed in China in 1999. Some of the artists, who are survivors of China's hard labor camps, had endured the very tortures portrayed in the paintings. The exhibition was originally approved by the head of the Asian Studies department at TAU, Prof. Yoav Ariel, along with the university's administration, which allotted nearly two weeks in March 2008, for the presenters to show the paintings inside the central on-campus library. But after just two days, organizers were told that the exhibition had to be removed. After initially protesting the move, they were given an additional three days to hold the exhibition, but were then told it had to come down. The two students who had organized the exhibition, Yaniv Nitzan and Itay Tamuz, were incensed, and claimed that the decision to shut down the exhibition had been made after TAU was pressured by the Chinese Embassy in Tel Aviv, the two took the matter to court. Nitzan and Tamuz filed the petition against both TAU and the university's student union, both of whom appear as defendants on the court documents. According to a student union member close to the case, the pair had been under the impression that because the student union had refused to take sides in the matter until a legal ruling was issued, it, too, opposed the exhibition. Nonetheless, after more than a year of legal battles, Judge Amiram Benyamini ruled on Wednesday that TAU had "succumbed to pressure from the Chinese Embassy, which funds various activities at the university, and took down the exhibit, violating [the students'] freedom of expression." Benyamini also stipulated as part of his ruling that the exhibition be given another week to be shown, and ordered TAU to pay some NIS 45,000 for the students' court costs. TAU declined to comment on the matter Wednesday afternoon, and a spokesman at the Chinese Embassy refused to comment, telling The Jerusalem Post that it was "a holiday" before hanging up the phone. The TAU student union, however, which was not affected by the ruling, issued a response expressing its solidarity with the students, and called on the university to "encourage pluralism and freedom of expression amongst the student body." "As part of this, the student union will assist the organizers in their efforts to present the exhibition on campus. From the moment that the university decided to do away will the exhibition, the union waited for the legal ruling of the court. After receiving the judge's ruling, we are now standing with the students who initiated the exhibition, and will assist them in any way they might need to present the exhibition anew."