At the Rally for Free Speech on October 11, UTSU’s Vice-President, University Affairs Cassandra Williams suppressed the free speech of the students she is supposed to represent. The rally was meant to promote freedom of speech in the U of T community and in society at large. Anyone was allowed to take the microphone and speak their mind. The organizers strove to ensure no opinion was silenced, and that whoever spoke was heard without disruption.
However, some individuals, including Williams, used speaker systems to blast very loud white noise while people were speaking. Not only was the sound unappealing, it became difficult, or sometimes impossible, to hear what people were saying. Organizers asked for the noise to stop, but Williams and other anti-rally protesters sat on the speakers, preventing anyone who wanted to shut off the sound from doing so.
The hypocrisy of Williams’ actions was evident after considering that she helped out one week earlier at a different rally, when a group of students came together to give out “basic 101 information about trans folks and non-binary folks,” as she explained. Anyone who spoke at that rally was heard without any disruption close to what she imposed at the Free Speech rally. Photo and video evidence of the Free Speech rally showed Williams at one point publicly communicating her opinions to Professor Jordan Peterson, a promoter of and speaker at the rally, while later playing white noise when Peterson spoke out to promote freedom of speech.
Free speech is not only a fundamental right granted to us by the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, but also central to student life at the University of Toronto. The university’s Statement on Freedom of Speech states that the members of the school have “the right to examine, question, investigate, speculate, and comment on any issue,” and to “criticize the University and society at large.” It further states that the University “should not limit that debate by preordaining conclusions, or punishing or inhibiting the reasonable exercise of free speech.”
Anti-rally protestors cannot argue that the dialogue was ‘unreasonable’ if they shut down speech before any voices are even heard. By creating an environment where we cannot hear the opinions of the members of our community, the actions of the protestors inhibited the ability for free speech to be exercised at the university.
Most importantly, as a member of the UTSU executive team, Williams’ role on campus is different from that of any other student. She is paid just under $30,000 a year from mandatory fees by over 50,000 undergraduate students. Her mandate as Vice-President of University Affairs includes representing all students, and being highly involved in the Academic and Student Rights Commission. These students did not pay fees to have one of their most important rights stifled on campus. The fact that Williams is a public official, paid from students’ fees, and making such a drastic statement against a large portion of the student body calls the legitimacy of these actions into question.
Consequently, many students have realized that what she did was not appropriate for a public official that is supposed to represent them, and went online to voice their concerns. Facebook posts condemning Williams’ actions were posted, and the video showing her taking part in creating the noise became one of the top Reddit posts of all time in the U of T subreddit. Calls to impeach Williams were even made on social media, and a petition to this effect garnered over 300 signatures.
In comparison, Williams has remained relatively silent. Her only public statement on the matter thus far was in an article in The Medium, where she explained that it was “noise-music,” and not white noise, as if this excused her actions. The UTSU, in turn, has yet to make any public statement about her actions. When asked directly about her actions, her thoughts on the calls for impeachment, or whether she would consider resigning, for the purpose of this article, Williams did not comment.
A member of a student government should not take part in disrupting reasonable discourse. Student politicians do not have executive power over the students they serve, and they are given a salary not to oversee or impose restrictions on the student body, but to fulfill their duties and responsibilities in line with the university community.
Of course, student officials have their own beliefs and opinions, but raising those above the thoughts of the students they claim to represent, and acting as if those ideas are not as important, is unacceptable, indefensible, and not what student governance is about. If the UTSU purports to represent the student body as a whole, Williams’ actions at the rally greatly failed to promote that mission.
Robert Tran is a third-year student at New College studying Geography.