The past two weeks on campus have been comprised of the release of Professor Jordan Peterson’s YouTube videos and remarks about gender, anti-racist activism, and “politically correct” culture.
A rally entitled “U of T Rally for Free Speech” by organizers, with the subtitle “Jordan B. Peterson, Lauren Southern & Students On Political Correctness, Bill C16, HR & Equity Policy” was held on the steps outside Sidney Smith Hall. Bill C-16 and U of T’s HR equity training requirement were the topics of Peterson’s first two YouTube lectures in his series called “Professor against political correctness.”
The event came to an end around 2:30 pm, after audio equipment failed and students amassed outside Sidney Smith in the wake of a pulled fire alarm. The Toronto Police had arrived to deal with both the crowd and isolated incidents of assault.
Notable speakers included Peterson as well as Lauren Southern, a commentator for The Rebel Media, a right-wing online media outlet.
The rally took place six days after trans and non-binary activists held a teach-in and rally in response to some of Peterson’s remarks on gender. Southern had attended that rally, and was met with chants of “shame” when she made to defend Peterson while pretending to be transgender.
White noise and physical confrontations
Rally organizer Geoffrey Biffo Liew told The Varsity, “The event was intended to be an affirmation of freedom of speech, which includes contrary views. We could’ve had a peaceful, agreeable afternoon which would’ve made it look like there was no issue at all. Instead, we faced disruption, shouting down, cord pulling, and white noise.”
Peterson opened the rally and was drowned out by blasts of white noise coming from speakers set up behind him. Protestors of the event came to disrupt the rally and oppose what they viewed as hate speech.
“Myself and others were keeping an eye on the situation, as we had concerns that the event might attract people like white supremacists, like Neo-Nazis, because at previous such gatherings people like that have shown up,” said Qaiser Ali, one of the organizers of the trans and non-binary teach-in, told The Varsity.
Many of the protestors came from the trans and non-binary community, including University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU) Vice-President University Affairs Cassandra Williams. Members of the Black Liberation Collective, who had been protesting the UTSU for its lawsuit against Sandra Hudson earlier that day, were also present among the protesters.
Peterson began to speak after a rally attendee kicked over one of the speakers blasting white noise. The professor shifted the conversation away from the remarks he made in his YouTube lectures: “I’m not here to talk about sexual politics, it’s not my concern. What I’m going to talk about is freedom of speech.”
He continued without a microphone, “With Bill C-16 and surrounding legislation, it’s the first time I’ve seen in our legislative history where people are attempting to make us speak their language.”
The blasting of white noise proved to be a major point of contention at the rally, as some proponents of free speech who wished to speak at the rally had their opinions drowned out.
Ali told The Varsity that “the goal with the noise disruption, which is a tactic that has been used before, is not to suppress anyone’s free speech but rather not to take some speech lying down. These people were yelling homophobic slurs, transphobic slurs, referring to us as ‘things’ and ‘its’ — we were hoping to make that a little harder to hear.”
Liew expressed disappointment with the presence of white noise. “I have empathy for the struggles of transgender people and minorities, but that does not mean that they can shut down the discussion,” he said.
Racism and transphobia
Transphobic slurs could be heard as the protestors continued to blast white noise and confront rally attendees.
In one confrontation with BLC protesters, a man shouted, “We need more Michael Browns,” in reference to the 2014 fatal shooting of the 18-year old unarmed black man by police officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri.
“Certainly there are some extremely rude and bigoted people out there. It doesn’t really imply that we should hush them or silence them, that only drives their bigotry underground. If their opinions are truly ignorant then let it face the light of day,” Liew said in response to these remarks.
One attendee brought three dogs to the event and was openly criticized by many people for what was interpreted as an aggressive move. Near the end of the rally, this man was seen assaulting Ali by trying to crush their head and body in a door at the southeast side of the building. The police arrived shortly thereafter and spent time interviewing the man.
Roxane, a student who was protesting the rally as an independent dissenter, shared her feelings on the intentions of the rally: “I think [it was about] holding up standards of white supremacy and I think that a lot of arguments were steeped in fear, which was really concerning for me,” she said. “I think that this forum dissolved really quickly into speaking to people’s fear and vulgarities rather than articulating themselves and articulating their arguments.”
Steven Ainneta wore a “Support Local 81” jacket — the Downtown Toronto chapter of the Hell’s Angels Motorcycle Club — and was isolated by police after a physical scuffle; he later left the rally to jeers. In regards to Peterson, he said, “Some guy kinda told me that he didn’t want to use certain nouns or whatever.”
Almost an hour into the event, the atmosphere at the rally became more tense, and outbursts of violence became evident from attendees of the rally and its counter-protesters. One man, who asked to only be identified as Bryan, told The Varsity, “A guy came up to me and tried to grab my binder, but I wouldn’t let it go, so he pushed me. He then put his hands around my neck until Campus Police came and separated us.”
Another rally attendee, Connor Johnston, told The Varsity that he saw Southern and spectators involved in a “small brawl,” and Southern had her microphone taken away. Video footage shows that Southern also had glitter thrown at her and was shoved by a protester before a large scuffle ensued. Southern has stated publicly that she will be pursuing charges.
One student, who asked to only be identified as Ben, told The Varsity that he “was accosted by two separate older men with no affiliation to the university. One was wearing Hell’s Angel’s clothing, and the other, along with his wife, seemed to be identifying themselves as white supremacists. Both shoved me unprovoked, while my hands were up, and used racial, homophobic, and transphobic slurs and epithets with myself and other protestors on separate occasions — one grabbing me for being in the way of someone he was about to punch.”
Speaking with The Varsity after the event, Peterson commented on the presence of representatives of the ‘far-right’ at the rally. “It doesn’t surprise me. All of this agitation and noise risks making the right rise. It’s all happening, and why would that be surprising? For the first time in my life, I’m seeing young men turn to the right. It’s not good, and there are being people called out of the woodwork that you seriously do not want to meet,” he said.
Althea Blackburn-Evans, Director of Media Relations at U of T, told The Varsity that two incidents of alleged assault at the rally are currently under investigation by Campus Police. Constable Craig Brister of the Toronto Police Services told The Varsity that they were not handling any charges related to the rally.
Video footage taken by The Rebel Media and other rally attendees became viral through social media and online message boards.
Some view the presence of Williams’ participation in the white noise campaign as inappropriate, given her role in the UTSU. An online petition is being circulated for her impeachment from the UTSU executive, which as of midday Saturday had over 360 entries.
The petition is unlikely to hold water with the UTSU itself. According to the UTSU bylaws, in order to trigger an impeachment referendum, a requisition signed by 5 per cent of the union’s membership to a maximum of 500 members from a single constituency must be signed and submitted to the union. Neither Williams nor UTSU President Jasmine Wong Denike could be reached for comment.
On the topic of behaviour at the event violating the student code of conduct, Blackburn-Evans said she “can’t speculate on that at this stage; the university is still receiving and reviewing information related to the event.”
Some of the trans and non-binary protesters at the event have been the subject of social media targeting. A number of posts on the event’s Facebook page identified and threatened violence against some of the protesters.
In an email sent out by the university on October 14, Vice-President and Provost Cheryl Regehr and Vice-President Human Resources and Equity Kelly Hannah-Moffat condemned the threats against trans members of the university community and confirmed that both Campus Police and Toronto Police Services are involved.
On Sunday, the UTSU executive committee released a statement accusing U of T Campus Police for “[refusing] to intervene when they knew of and saw trans folks being assaulted. The union is calling for a public inquiry into the Campus Police by “an unbiased party” independent of the U of T administration.
“We affirm the value of freedom of expression, but there can be no freedom of expression without dignity for all, and trans students cannot truly enjoy freedom expression [sic], let alone participate in debate, when they are not treated with dignity, especially by those in positions of power,” reads the statement.
Blackburn-Evans told The Varsity that a response from the university is pending review.
On whether Peterson has been the subject of formal complaints from students, Blackburn-Evans said, “A number of members of our community have expressed concern to various offices, and we are now in the process of determining which of those are formal complaints and how we’ll best address them.”
As the controversy continues, Peterson indicated that he continues to stand by his original remarks: “I regret not formulating them more precisely, but the thing is, as I said before, when you first start to discuss something, you’re going to do it badly — it’s a sort of scattershot approach. I’m trying to be more precise, so no, I don’t regret it.”
With files from Jaren Kerr and Aidan Currie.