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The Varsity

The University of Toronto's Student Newspaper Since 1880

Where speech roams free

VANESSA WANG/THE VARSITY

on November 20, 2016

On a cold and grey afternoon in late October, a small group of protesters stand huddled outside Simcoe Hall, the ink on their cardboard picket signs smudged by the rain. Chad Hallman, a second-year Philosophy and Law student, stands atop the steps with a megaphone.

He’s doing what many protesters came out to support: he’s condemning  student activists for participating in what he sees as suppression of speech, and singing praise for Jordan Peterson, a U of T Psychology Professor who became the centre of controversy after posting a video on his YouTube channel decrying “political correctness” and non-binary gender identities.

“What we’d like to call for is an end to these identity politics,” Hallman proclaims to the raincoat-clad group. “We believe that arguments should be judged based on the content of the actual argument, based on the evidence and the persuasions presented. We don’t think that someone simply has a monopoly on saying what’s racist, what’s not, and what’s valid and what’s not.”

The premise of the rally is rather simple: free speech is a guaranteed right for all, and it shouldn’t be taken away, no matter what that speech may be. Is free speech actually in danger? According to the protesters, yes it is. They feel that certain people are trying to silence them, specifically the people they refer to as ‘social justice warriors’ (SJWs) — student activists of a radical left mentality.

Passersby pay little attention to the rally. A rally held a few weeks earlier appeared to have a significantly larger turnout, which was further escalated by the arrival of a swath of counter-protesters. This one is less exciting, though. The protest lacks fervent dissent, and the poor weather situation isn’t helping. After about an hour of open-mic discussion, the protesters casually disperse.

Open a laptop, though, and it is as if the protest never really ended, but instead grew larger. In a Facebook group that, until recently, was labelled ‘Students in Support of Free Speech’ (SSFS), over a thousand accounts’ worth of students, non-students, and Internet trolls comprise a broad coalition of free speech supporters.

Anyone can request to join this group — admission is then subject to the approval of an administrator — and once inside, members are welcome to discuss whatever thought the mind conjures up, so long as it does not incite violence, aim to harass others, or blatantly spam. Failure to comply after three warnings means an administrator will banish you from the group.

For those whose Facebook newsfeeds are filled by posts from liberally-inclined friends about the dangers of President-elect Donald Trump, the inside of SSFS’ Facebook group is similar to visiting the ‘Upside Down’ in Stranger Things. Mostly, the comment threads act as outlets for members to vent their displeasure for SJWs, ‘trigger warnings,’ ‘safe spaces,’ or feminism.

To many of them, the left is the ‘regressive left:’ control-freak ideologues intent on regulating a person’s every move until society resembles something similar to George Orwell’s 1984, but maybe with more pronouns. Dystopian imagery of an Orwellian, totalitarian state is often invoked by the anti-‘regressive left’ contingency, followed by warnings to fellow members regarding the socialist hell that will be unleashed upon them should these radical student-activists have their way.

And then there are the trolls. In one thread, a member posts an animated video created by alt-right journalist Milo Yiannopoulos. It depicts the heads of crying, Democratic celebrities being shipped away in a school bus following Trump’s victory in the US presidential elections. Driving the bus is ‘Pepe the Frog,’ an Internet meme taken hostage by the alt-right.

In spite of the trolls, the group still has room for intellectual, productive discussion, according to the administrators.

“I would disagree that the group has become an echo-chamber,” replies group administrator Geoffrey Liew, when asked. “I have never really questioned my beliefs or been more uncomfortable with the way I see things than in the last couple of months. A lot of people who follow this group have never really thought about gender expression or American politics or any of these controversial topics more than ever now. They’re being confronted by a whole variety of things they’ve never seen or heard occur before.”

The SSFS leaders aren’t particularly concerned about the trolls, either. Mari Jang, one of the group’s administrators, admits she would have removed some of these comments had she seen them, but to them, the nastier posts — called ‘shitposting,’ as per online diction — are a reflection of society; a minor inconvenience to necessary democratic fundamentals.

To suppress these comments, the admins hold, would be worse than to let them loose. To bury them would be to let them fester. “There are people who will say awful, terrible, counter-productive things,” admits Liew. “But for me, and for many others, this has been a very valuable opportunity to examine our ideology and really put it to the test.”

Some members acknowledge the group’s virtues, while others disavow them, ditching the group out of frustration with its direction. Before jumping ship, one member writes, “With the growth of the group, and I suppose the election of Trump, this has become less about freedom of speech and more about personal agendas and libel and hatred and racism… The name should not be students in support of free speech, it should be People in support of hate towards those who are different.”

Someone replies, “Don’t let the door hit you on the way out.” Another follows with, “Back in the safe space.”

Inner factionalism amongst the members has occasionally plagued the group, too; their differences unearthed by varying understandings of where free speech ends and hate speech begins. Some argue that hate speech is the incitement of violence — no more and no less — while others don’t believe in hate speech at all, advocating instead for a totally unfiltered, laissez-faire freedom to speak.

In early November, some members defected from the group to join ‘Students Against Political Correctness,’ priding the newfound group on using as little moderation as conceivably possible.

Similar movements have emerged at other universities, where students — fearing that their ability to speak freely is threatened by oppositional ideologues — have erected free speech organizations in an effort to maintain autonomy.

But the partisan nature of some has only served to feed into other students’ suspicions of these groups’ intentions: that, in some cases, perhaps the free speech supporters do not truly fear that their free speech is at risk, but instead are searching for their own SJW-free echo chamber.

The most prominent example of this is the University of British Columbia’s Free Speech Club, a group of Trump supporters who converge to vocalize their support and don ‘Make America Great Again’ hats under the guise of supporting free speech. This group’s choice to use ‘free speech’ as a title for a pro-Trump group is precisely what can cause oppositional groups to question the validity of free speech groups that claim to promote fruitful discussion.

On the other hand, SSFS executives are insistent that their group is apolitical. The executives have varying political ideologies — they are not by any means just a group of Trump supporters — but they are connected by their shared support of free speech, and a shared belief that someone is trying to take it from them.

“Everyone’s got their own personal opinions, and everyone is free to act on their own motivations in a personal capacity, but the group, in and of itself, is here to support free speech for everyone in principle,” notes Hallman, also an SSFS executive.

Since their initial start-up, SSFS received ULife recognition, changed the Facebook group’s name to Students in Support of Free Discourse, and opened a separate online forum outside of Facebook — a change that some members took well and others not so much. The decision, says Jang, was “more of a rebranding thing than any kind of issue that arose,” but admittedly, through this process, they might “lose the trolls.”

So far, that seems to have been working. The new forum is neatly categorized by topic — “Campus Freedom”, “Social Justice”, and so on — in an effort to encourage fruitful discussion. And naturally, some of the same sentiments from the Facebook group transfer over.

Under “Campus Freedom,” one thread begins by posing, rather gingerly, a question that many are quick to try and answer: “How do we convince SJWs of our cause?” Some commenters reply hopefully, others with despair. Jang writes that she “won’t stop trying” but has yet to find any “common ground” with those who she perceives to be SJWs.

In person, though, Jang acknowledges that perhaps this isn’t entirely true. The labels — ‘social justice warriors’ and ‘free speech warriors’ — are vastly misleading; they only serve to polarize groups whose values, in many cases, overlap. “It’s easy to think of people in groups when you’re divided into your own Internet bubbles,” she tells me at the Bahen Centre, away from the on-goings of the Internet world. “In person, it’s much easier to reach agreements.”