On February 4, 2017, protesters interrupted the Toronto Action Forum event held by Students in Support of Free Speech (SSFS) — a campus group developed in the wake of the Jordan Peterson controversy — and Generation Screwed, an economic activism group.
Speakers at the event included Peterson, Psychology Professor who has been called transphobic by some students on campus following his Professor against political correctness YouTube lecture series, and Ezra Levant, founder of right-wing media website, The Rebel. Other well-known correspondents for The Rebel, including Lauren Southern and Faith Goldy, were also in attendance.
According to protester and community activist Qaiser Ali, the protesters objected to “the fact that the university has both allowed and sanctioned an alt-right, neo-fascist hate conference starring Ezra Levant.” The protesters occupied the building, chanting “Fuck white supremacy!” and “No Trump! No KKK! No fascist USA!”
While leaders of the SSFS reportedly felt that the event would have sparked protests with or without the controversial speakers and that the protesters used Levant as a “scapegoat” for making their views heard, this is not the case. The protesters are correct in saying that the speakers should not have been
permitted to have this platform in the first place.
The protesters have been accused of opposing the presentation of conservative viewpoints on campus. However, whether or not a speaker should be allowed to have space on campus cannot necessarily be boiled down to a left-versus-right issue. There are a number of reasons why we might object to having certain types of events on campus.
For example, it was completely unacceptable when Ken O’Keefe, a conspiracy theorist and Holocaust denier, was given a space to speak on campus in June 2016, because he was propagating blatantly false anti-Semitic views.
It should also be noted that there are right-wing groups at U of T that host events with little controversy and no protests, like the Campus Conservatives. We cannot accurately say that all conservative viewpoints are being silenced on campus.
Students protested the presence of Levant at the Toronto Action Forum because of his past expressions of racism and Islamophobia. Levant has made racist comments towards Romani people and is the author of a series of articles for The Rebel that suggest Europe is being “overrun” by Muslims. Southern has used homophobic slurs on Twitter and retweeted an anti-Semitic tweet that implied someone who found a swastika on their door drew it themselves.
Levant and The Rebel have also been accused of actively spreading conspiracies and false rumours surrounding the Québec City mosque attack. An email sent out by The Rebel on January 30, 2017 suggested mainstream media was obscuring the fact that a Muslim individual was involved in the shooting — despite no evidence to support this. Levant asked for donations to cover the accommodations cost of two Rebel correspondents, who travelled to Québec City to “follow the facts, wherever they lead.”
When The Varsity asked Levant to respond to this point, he made no comment.
Both SSFS and Generation Screwed claim they are not associated with fascism or racism and their goals are the promotion of freedom of speech and fiscal responsibility, respectively. These claims are hard to take seriously when they welcome speakers like Levant, who is known for racially-charged rhetoric.
I also wonder why a group that claims to be in support of free speech has remained noticeably silent around issues of academic freedom, outside of the Peterson context. For instance, the group has not publicly criticized the ‘watchlist’ that was made in the US accusing leftist professors of spreading propaganda.
SSFS has also failed to comment on other important issues related to censorship in North America, including the silencing of environmental scientists by current US President Donald Trump and by former Prime Minister Stephen Harper, or the silencing of Elizabeth Warren by Republicans when she attempted to read a letter written by Coretta King during the recent Sessions Debate.
Despite criticisms that the protestors inaccurately characterized attendees as Trump supporters, some of the event’s attendees were seen wearing ‘Make America Great Again’ hats and chanting “Trump” and “Build that wall.” The overlap here is telling by nature of its hypocrisy — Trump frequently berates the media and anyone who dares to criticize him, and consequently, it is hard to believe he holds very open views on freedom of speech.
Freedom of speech, legally speaking, means that you cannot be arrested or punished by the government for what you say unless it puts people in danger. Nobody is suggesting that this should happen to any of the speakers.
What freedom of speech does not entail is speaking without having to face consequences or being permitted a platform wherever you want. All groups on campus, regardless of political alignment, should be permitted to hold uninterrupted events. But speakers who promote racism, Islamophobia, or any other kind of bigotry should never be given a space here.
Adina Heisler is a second-year student at University College studying Women and Gender Studies and English.