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All Ontario universities must develop free speech policies, says provincial government

Policies must be in place by 2019

All Ontario universities must develop free speech policies, says provincial government

The provincial government has mandated that all universities in Ontario draft a policy on freedom of speech by January 1, 2019. This follows Premier Doug Ford’s campaign promise that he would “ensure publicly funded universities defend free speech for everybody.”

In a press statement released on August 30, the Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities announced that every publicly-assisted college and university will have to develop and publicly post a policy that includes a definition of freedom of speech and principles based on the University of Chicago Statement on Principles of Free Expression, developed in 2014.

Free speech policy

According to the government, the policy must apply to faculty, students, staff, and management alike and uphold principles of open discussion and free inquiry.

The policy should also explain that “the university/college should not attempt to shield students from ideas or opinions that they disagree with or find offensive.”

“Speech that violates the law is not allowed,” according to the press release.

For student groups, failure to comply with the policy in the future could mean a severance of financial support or recognition.

The release also states that schools should “encourage student unions to adopt policies that align with the free speech policy.”

In order to ensure that universities are following through, all schools must prepare annual progress reports for the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario, beginning in September 2019.

“If institutions fail to comply with government requirements to introduce and report on free speech policies, or if they fail to follow their own policies once implemented, the ministry may respond with reductions to their operating grant funding, proportional to the severity of non-compliance,” according to the press release.

U of T has had a free speech policy in place since 1992. SCREENSHOT VIA FREESPEECH.UTORONTO.CA

U of T’s response

U of T has had policies on freedom of speech in place since 1992. Titled the Statement of Institutional Purpose and the Statement on Freedom of Speech, they state that freedom of speech means “the right to examine, question, investigate, speculate, and comment on any issue without reference to prescribed doctrine, as well as the right to criticize the University and society at large.”

The 26-year-old policy also states that “every member should be able to work, live, teach and learn in a University free from discrimination and harassment.”

In a press release from U of T, President Meric Gertler said, “Our principles have served us well and must continue to guide our practices. It’s important that members of our community understand the university’s policies on how we address these issues.”

“We have a responsibility as a university community to ensure that debates and discussions take place in an environment of mutual respect, and free of hate speech, physical violence or other actions that may violate the laws of the land,” he added.

In response to the Ford government’s announcement, U of T club Students in Support of Free Speech (SSFS) told The Varsity that it is “happy to see the Ontario Government making a commitment to the cause of free speech in Ontario universities and colleges.”

SSFS is a club that fights for the rights of students in regards to freedom of expression. It has hosted some controversial events in the past, including a rally in support of the Halifax ‘Proud Boys’ in July 2017.

“We remain cautiously optimistic as we await the full policy, and look forward to the work of Minister [of Training, Colleges and Universities Merrilee] Fullerton,” said the SSFS. “We hope this policy ensures the rights of students to express themselves freely while maintaining a respectful environment free from harassment and discrimination.”

Group spotted putting up “It’s Okay to be White” posters on campus

SFFD members among the group putting up posters

Group spotted putting up “It’s Okay to be White” posters on campus

Content Warning: homophobic language.

The posters that stirred up controversy and concern last week are back.

More of the posters that say “It’s Okay to be White” were put up on the downtown campus on November 7, as originally reported by Torontoist. The posters are part of an alt-right strategy to promote an agenda of racial tension and conflict in the media, and can be traced back to the online message board 4chan.

The 4chan post in question. SCREENSHOT VIA 4CHAN

According to Torontoist, Winston Smith and another person can be identified from photographs taken on the campus as two of three visible people putting up the posters. Smith’s name is apparently an alias.

Apparently, Smith yelled “faggot” and “fucking commie scum” at the person who captured photos of him.

The posters caused a fervour on campus last week, in part because of a rumour circulating on social media that razor blades were hidden behind them with the intention being to harm anyone taking them down. The Varsity was unable to find proof that any of the posters had razor blades behind them.

The other person confirmed to The Varsity in writing that they were involved in putting up some of the posters after being “invited by a buddy.” However, they denied that there were razor blades hidden behind the posters. “That is the same old accusation that the far left has been making on ANY conservative leaning posters in the past couple years,” they said.

They deny being alt-right, saying they are “a libertarian free speech activist that just likes to stir the pot.”

They wrote that “the reason that this agreeable poster has caused such a ruckus is the very reason why I think its an important message. It’s okay to be who I am.”

Althea Blackburn-Evans, Director of Media Relations at U of T, said that the messages on the posters “are part of campaigns around North America that are antithetical to the University’s commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion, which are among our core values.”

As far as Blackburn-Evans is aware, the posters were not posted in locations that met with university guidelines, and have been removed.

Smith is a member of the Facebook group Students For Free Discourse (SFFD). SFFD is no longer run by members of the Ulife-recognized student group Students in Support of Free Speech (SSFS). SFFD included members of the current SSFS at its founding, and continues to count some SSFS members amongst its membership.

According to Calix Zhang, President of the U of T chapter of SSFS, Smith is not a registered member of the group.

Chad Hallman, a spokesperson for SSFS, said that as far as he was aware, the other person is not a U of T student, but Smith is. “SSFS doesn’t view this type of activism as productive or in line with our goals,” said Hallman.

Smith was present at the 27 October, 2016 rally for free speech hosted by SSFS.

Smith did not respond to The Varsity’s request for comment as of press time.

Editor’s note: This article has been updated to include comment from an anonymous source and the U of T administration.

Editor’s note (November 21): One of the people who put up the posters, who was previously identified in this article, has since asked to remain anonymous due to violent threats they claim to have received as a result of their name being identified. 

Why is Students in Support of Free Speech defending the Proud Boys?

While the group purports to be in favour of protecting free speech for all, recent events demonstrate they are only concerned with doing so for certain people

Why is Students in Support of Free Speech defending the Proud Boys?

Picture this: a group of people have come together to organize a demonstration. They are interrupted by a second group of people, who try to stop them because they feel that the demonstration is offensive to their beliefs. In this situation, you’d think that a group like Students in Support of Free Speech (SSFS) — who claim, according to their website, to support “every person’s right to free speech” — would jump to the defence of the individuals whose right to protest was being threatened.

SSFS is a “non-partisan” group that wishes to uphold “personal freedom of expression, conscience, and belief,” and “political freedom in expressing beliefs, opinions, and viewpoints.” Their mantra was put to the test when SSFS found themselves in a controversy relating to an incident in Halifax that occurred earlier this month.

On July 1, a group of Indigenous activists held a mourning ceremony in front of a statue of Edward Cornwallis, the founder of the city of Halifax. The Indigenous group staged a protest in reference to Cornwallis’ unrestrained violence and persecution of the Mi’kmaq people. During one part of the ceremony, dozens of people gathered around the statue to watch Chief Grizzly Mamma shave her head in an act of mourning — an especially symbolic act as Cornwallis infamously issued a bounty on Mi’kmaq scalps.

As this happened, however, a group of five men approached the group with the intention to disrupt or interrupt the ceremony. The so-called “Halifax Five” identified themselves as members of the Maritime Chapter of the Proud Boys, a far-right group founded by Gavin McInnes, co-founder of Vice Media. The group identifies themselves as a “pro-Western fraternal organization” for men who “refuse to apologize for creating the modern world.” They hold that “The West is the Best” and oppose feminism.

McInnes himself is no role model; one of his claims to fame is an extremely offensive video rant published in March of 2017, in which he stated he was “becoming anti-Semitic.” This video was praised by white supremacists like David Duke and Richard Spencer.

Not only was the Halifax Five incident horribly disappointing in light of Canada’s colonial past, it also meant drawing a great deal of attention away from what the activists were actually trying to say. Canadians need to learn how to acknowledge the violent colonial actions of well-respected figures like Cornwallis, but instead of opening up a dialogue about Halifax’s past and Cornwallis’ actions, media attention on the Proud Boys and the fallout from the incident drew the public’s eyes away from the purpose of the ceremony itself.

The exact nature of what the Halifax Five did and said isn’t precisely clear. Some reports characterized their actions as a disruption of the Indigenous protest, while others, including SSFS, seemed to say that the news reports were skewed with left-leaning bias. Perhaps the Proud Boys perceive criticism of Cornwallis and the actions undertaken against Indigenous people under colonial rule to be offensive to their belief that “The West is the Best.” Had the Halifax Five held some type of pro-Cornwallis demonstration the next day, or even restricted their disagreement to the internet or to a different place away from the ceremony, this would be a different conversation. It is clear, however, that the Proud Boys sought to at the very least interrupt the ceremony by singing, waving a flag, and ultimately making a scene that disrupted the proceedings.  

In light of this, one could argue that the actions of the Proud Boys ought to at least trigger conversations about the rights of the Indigenous group to protest peacefully and express their views freely. Accordingly, you might expect that SSFS would decry the attempt of the Proud Boys to try to suppress the free expression of the Indigenous protesters — but the exact opposite happened. On July 15, SSFS took the side of the Halifax Five and organized a rally in their support at Queen’s Park.  

SSFS might argue that they only intended to express support for the right of the Proud Boys and the Halifax Five to organize peacefully. This is indeed what the rally itself seemed to be about, and would certainly align with SSFS’s stated philosophy. According to SSFS member and rally organizer Simon Capobianco, “The major purpose [of the rally] was… to defend the Constitutional rights of the Halifax five… One of the fundamental freedoms guaranteed in the charter is the right to freedom of assembly, and… [the military members] were in a public space, they were assembling peacefully.”

However, this seemingly noble purpose is misguided, and potentially reveals the true motivations behind the actions the group has taken in favour of free speech. Capobianco’s statement is somewhat confusing, considering that you could very easily say the same of the Indigenous activists — they were also assembling peacefully, and were well within their right to do so. In the past, SSFS has even decried interruptions of their own proceedings, such as when the Toronto Action Forum, an event co-hosted on campus by SSFS and Generation Screwed on February 4, was interrupted and ultimately halted by protestsWhy would they jump to defend the disruption posed by the Proud Boys, but condemn the protests in response to their own events?

It should also be noted that while there was thankfully no violence as a result of the confrontation between the Halifax Five and the Indigenous activists, back in April, the Proud Boys announced the formation of a “military division” to be headed by Kyle Chapman, who had been released from jail the previous month on suspicion of a felony assault with a deadly weapon.

What makes things worse is the fact that much of the focus of this rally has been on the presence of white supremacist Paul Fromm and SSFS’s ever-shifting explanations and apologies for his presence. Though SSFS’s claim to fame is supporting free expression regardless of the content of the messages, in this case, they appeared to waver in their stance. First, they made a statement on Facebook claiming that they did not know what Fromm looked like and hadn’t been aware that he was attending the rally. The statement was later deleted from their Facebook page, and replaced with a YouTube apology, after receiving numerous negative comments from skeptics.  

Let’s give SSFS the benefit of the doubt and say that they really didn’t know Fromm was there, or at least that they did not intend for him to be there and do not in any way endorse his views. At the least, the fact that SSFS jumped to backtrack when faced with a real-life white supremacist demonstrates some serious inconsistencies in their logic. In their initial post, SSFS stated that “if we had been aware of Paul Fromm’s identity and affiliations at the time of the rally… we would have prevented him from using our megaphone.”

This particular statement seems at odds with the group’s alleged commitment to the importance of free and unbridled speech, regardless of the nature of the messages — does this mean that SSFS is recognizing the danger of giving a platform to white supremacists and other hateful people and groups?

If you’re keeping score, here’s the deal: Indigenous activists chose to exercise their freedom of speech and assembly to protest a statue of a man who ordered many acts of violence to be committed against the Mi’kmaq people after founding a city on territory that hadn’t been ceded. They held a protest and a mourning ceremony for Indigenous people who had been hurt or killed. The activists were interrupted by five men connected to a “pro-Western” chauvinist group with a paramilitary branch founded by a far-right, possible anti-Semite. Finally, SSFS, a “non-partisan” student group, decided to hold a rally supporting those five men in their brave quest to interrupt an Indigenous ceremony — and a notorious white supremacist just happened to show up and speak. SSFS then apologized for his presence.

What’s perhaps most ironic about this whole thing was that, in the apology video, SSFS president Marilyn Jang also apologized for holding the rally at the 48th Highlanders of Canada Regimental Memorial, saying it was “an extremely unthoughtful choice of venue for any rally… Memorials should solely be seen as a symbol of remembrance and a way to honour the fallen.” I agree: it seems like memorials and memorial ceremonies are inappropriate places to espouse political ideologies. Surely this logic should also apply to the activists memorializing fallen Indigenous folks as well?

SSFS has always argued that their only goal is to support freedom of speech, regardless of political affiliation. But this incident seems to prove that the group is cherry-picking whose rights to support — and that everyone else needs to step back and, well, be quiet.

Adina Heisler is an incoming third-year student at University College, studying Women and Gender Studies and English.

Right-leaning conference interrupted by protesters

Jordan Peterson, Ezra Levant amongst keynote speakers at Toronto Action Conference

Right-leaning conference interrupted by protesters

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
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.

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Editor’s note: This article has been updated to include a response from Ezra Levant.