A student-run conference on campus showcasing conservative and libertarian speakers was disrupted and ultimately halted following protests and the pulling of a fire alarm.
Students in Support of Free Speech (SSFS) co-hosted the sold-out 2017 Toronto Action Forum with Generation Screwed at the Sandford Fleming Building on February 4.
Professor Jordan Peterson, who gained national attention in the fall after he released a YouTube lecture series called Professor against political correctness, was one of the keynote speakers, alongside conservative activist and publisher of The Rebel, Ezra Levant.
SSFS is a campus club with Ulife recognition that was founded after an October rally in support of free speech and Peterson was also disrupted. Generation Screwed is the student wing of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, a conservative and libertarian-leaning advocacy group.
The Sandford Fleming auditorium, which seats 222, was mostly full for the event. Although Generation Screwed’s mandate focuses mostly on government spending and taxation, speakers at the conference discussed a wide variety of issues, including supporting the Canadian oil industry, hydro rates, freedom of speech, and ‘political-correctness’ on campus. Around a dozen attendees could be seen wearing ‘Make America Great Again’ hats.
Protesters at Sandford Fleming
About 30 protesters arrived outside the lecture hall at around 4:00 pm, during a talk called “How Political Intervention Has Led to Soaring Energy Prices for Ontario.” By that time, organizers and Campus Police were restricting people from entering and exiting the hall, and they formed a human chain outside one of the exits.
“The speaker that was in the middle of talking while this disruption was happening was talking about how high hydro rates hurt lower class Ontarians more than anybody else, so that was when they arrived,” said Aaron Gunn, Executive Director for Generation Screwed.
Amongst the protesters were community activists Qaiser Ali and Lane Patriquin, who have been active at past protests and counter-protests on campus. Also in attendance was Cassandra Williams, Vice-President University Affairs of the University of Toronto Students’ Union.
Geoffrey Liew, the Vice-President of SSFS and the organizer of the original free speech rally, told The Varsity that the interruption was not unexpected. “We expected some resistance, but we didn’t expect that it would be that visceral as when it happened,” he said.
The protesters marched towards the doors to the auditorium where the event was taking place, but were blocked by a line of campus police officers. Chants of “Fuck white supremacy!” and “No Trump! No KKK! No fascist USA!” echoed throughout the building.
At one point, a protester could be seen attempting to lunge past the officers.
In response, some conference attendees, including Rebel correspondents Lauren Southern, Jay Fayza, and Faith Goldy began chanting “Trump!” and “Build that wall!”
Ali told The Varsity that they were “protesting the fact that the university has both allowed and sanctioned an alt-right, neo-fascist hate conference starring Ezra Levant.”
Ali alleged that Levant and The Rebel sent journalists to harass transgender students, and that Levant has become a proponent of the Québec City mosque ‘truther’ movement, spreading conspiracy theories saying that another Muslim person carried out the Quebec City shooting.
The Varsity made multiple attempts to reach Levant for comment on these
allegations, but did not receive a response as of press time.
Levant subsequently responded to The Varsity on Monday by email to address the use of the word “fascist” in association with himself and The Rebel. “Our entire Rebel delegation at this event was female, Jewish, gay or black,” he wrote, “I don’t think we’d make very good fascists.”
Levant added that some of the protestors, whom he called “professional protesters,” were “dressed in black [and] wore masks over their face.” He also alleged that the activities of the protesters constituted “trespass and illegal mischief,” and that they “threatened violence.”
Levant declined to comment further on allegations about The Rebel‘s coverage of the mosque shooting, or to clarify what he meant by the term “professional protesters.”
“The university has been made aware by many students of the fact that they have been encouraging or doing nothing to stop far right extremist politics,” Ali went on. “Students [are] afraid to come to class, that has led to students harassed by Rebel Media journalists, that has led to students being doxxed.” ‘Doxxing’ is a phrase used to describe the practice of identifying individuals’ personal information and distributing it online.
Event, protesters move outside
Levant, described on the billing for the event as a “Human Rights Activist,” was scheduled to speak at 4:45 pm. About five minutes into his talk, titled “Trumping Trudeau,” the fire alarm was pulled and conference guests were asked to evacuate out a back door by Campus Police.
Chad Hallman, one of the organizers of the event and the Public Relations Director at SSFS, told The Varsity that he “[thinks] they would have protested this regardless of who was speaking. They used [Levant] as a scapegoat.”
The audio equipment and banners were moved outside, and Levant continued his talk to a group of people circled around him.
Conference guests and protesters poured outside to the grass bordering the west side of King’s College Road, and a heavy Toronto Police presence materialized.
There were about 37 police officers, some of whom formed a long human chain from the Sandford Fleming Building to the road, effectively dividing the protesters from the conference guests.
Lane Patriquin, one of the protesters, told The Varsity that they were “practicing no-platforming, which is the practice of removing platforms and venues for fascists and crypto-fascists so that they do not have the opportunity to spread their rhetoric.”
Both SSFS and Generation Screwed say that the allegations that they are associated with “fascist” and “racist” ideologies are false. Their professed missions are for freedom of speech and fiscal responsibility, respectively.
While the protesters aimed to remove the platform from Levant, members of SSFS believe that the protesting actions only help their cause.
“What these people have done is they’ve shown, just as they have time and time again, and it’s the same people, that free speech is under attack in universities,” Hallman said.
He went on: “Free speech is not what they claim it to be on campus — they’ve completely legitimized this.”
On Sunday, Generation Screwed released a public statement, calling the accusations of fascism and racism to be “laughable and false” and committing to holding more student conferences in the future.
Event ends amidst heavy police presence
Liew said that, shortly after the building was evacuated, he was asked to bring the event to a close.
“The staff sergeant took me aside and then he said, ‘This event is over, the university is no longer able to provide a safe venue, and it’s a concern of security.’ So we were to announce that the event was over and cooperate in all actions of police.”
U of T Media Relations Director Althea Blackburn-Evans confirmed that campus police made the decision to end the event early, due to safety concerns. She explained that room bookings on campus are rarely discontinued, unless there’s “an unmanageable security risk or safety risks or there’s a good reason to believe that unlawful activity will occur.”
SSFS and Generation Screwed brought the audio equipment and banners back inside, and the crowd began to disperse soon after the event was halted.
Gunn told The Varsity that he was “not thrilled about” the university’s decision to end the event, but noted that they were already at the tail-end of the conference before it was shut down.
Blackburn-Evans stated, “This is fundamentally a place where people have the ability to examine and question a whole variety of issues and that happens every day and you see it reflected in many of our central policies, so it means that controversial viewpoints are often shared and that happens at universities, but it doesn’t guarantee that anything said on our campuses is protected.”
“Organizers have a responsibility to ensure that speakers follow the Ontario Human Rights Code, the Criminal Code, and of course, our policies, the policies at the university,” she continued.
Peterson, speaking to The Varsity following his morning talk, said that he doesn’t think anything surrounding the climate of free speech on campus has changed since October.
When asked whether he thinks that the conflict over the limits of free speech will go away, Peterson said, “It can’t go away. I’m not inclined to take a wild swing at any hornets’ nests that I can avoid but it isn’t going away, obviously, it’s not going away.”
He continued, “If anything… this is going to become more intense.”
— With files from Tom Yun.
Editor’s note: This article has been updated to include a response from Ezra Levant.