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Campus free speech versus Antifa thugs: UBC must choose

The University of British Columbia has until January 10 to reverse its decision to cancel a speaking event featuring journalist Andy Ngo. For the sake of free speech it better.
John Carpay Calgary, AB

Lawyer John Carpay is the president of the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms (JCCF.ca), which acts for The Free Speech Club at UBC.

Will the University of British Columbia (UBC) honour and uphold its own commitment to free expression, or pander to violent Antifa thugs?

This question arises from UBC’s cancellation of a campus event featuring journalist Andy Ngo, who is also editor-at-large at The Post Millennial. Mr. Ngo was physically assaulted by Antifa (short for “anti-fascist”) in Portland, Oregon in June of 2019, while covering a protest.

In November 2019, UBC approved a speaking engagement for Mr. Ngo, sponsored by The Free Speech Club, entitled “Understanding ANTIFA Violence.” The Free Speech Club paid a deposit to UBC, set up an Eventbrite page, and booked the flight for Mr. Ngo to come to Vancouver on January 29, 2020.

On December 20, 2019, UBC suddenly cancelled the January event, citing vague “safety and security” concerns without specifics.

Mr. Ngo, who is of Southeast Asian descent and is openly gay, has frequently reported on Antifa protests and violence, making both himself and his work a target of Antifa.  Antifa is a loosely organized coalition of left-wing activists and self-described anarchists who use direct action, including vandalism, physical violence, threats, cyber attacks, and blockades, often to shut down events or protest opinions they oppose. Antifa protestors typically dress in black and wear masks to hide their faces.

Pandering to Antifa is completely contrary to how UBC describes itself: “a forum where ideas can be expressed, debated, and challenged, and where participants can gain insight and greater mutual understanding.” Cancelling an event obviously prevents people from gaining “insight” and “greater mutual understanding.”

UBC claims to support the freedom “to engage in full and unrestricted consideration of any opinion” for students as well as invited guests. UBC claims that “suppression of this freedom, whether by institutions of the state, the officers of the University, or the actions of private individuals, would prevent the University from carrying out its primary functions.” UBC clearly recognizes that free speech is threatened not only by censorship from the authorities above, but also by censorship from the mob below: “the actions of private individuals.” The freedom to speak–along with the equally important right of people to hear and listen to diverse opinions–cannot exist when individuals shut down events by screaming, shouting, throwing stink bombs, pulling fire alarms, vandalizing property, threatening violence, or physically obstructing access to events.

Antifa is very clever to wrap itself in the undeniably admirable cloak of “anti-fascism.” Yet Antifa uses violence, threats of violence, and physical obstruction as methods to silence speakers they disagree with. These are the same tactics used by fascists across Europe in the 1930s, who rejected debate and intellectual inquiry and instead took action to silence their opponents.

Using physical force (whether violent or non-violent) to silence opponents is not limited to Antifa.

For example, the University of Alberta in 2015 condoned a mob physically obstructing a peaceful, stationary pro-life display on campus. Using sheets, towels, banners, and mega-phones, the mob made it impossible for passers-by to view the signs. The mob effectively silenced intellectual discussion and inquiry. Prior to this physical obstruction and disruption of a university-approved campus event, the University’s president had stated publicly that the pro-life group was entitled to express its opinions on campus. But her statement was not taken seriously by campus security or anyone else. The University’s campus security repeatedly told members of the obstructing mob that they were violating the Code of Student Behaviour, which expressly prohibits interrupting and obstructing university-related activities and events. Yet campus security took no action to stop the obstruction, or to discipline students who boasted publicly on social media about their success in silencing a message they disagreed with.

The University of Alberta ignored the fact that any threat to safety and security that may have existed on campus came uniquely from those who physically obstructed and loudly interrupted a university-approved event. Rather than render an invoice to the self-identified and self-confessed rule-breakers, the University instead told the small pro-life club that it could no longer set up a display on campus unless it first paid $17,500 in security fees.

This blame-the-victim approach is wilfully blind to reality. Blaming the victim means ignoring the important distinction between those merely exercising their legal rights to express opinions peacefully in a free society, and those who threaten safety and security by breaking university rules against obstructing and blockading campus events. Universities with legitimate concerns about security costs should present invoices to those who openly, publicly and proudly threaten safety and security by breaking university rules.  These students should also be disciplined for misconduct, up to and including expulsion from the university.

To date, few Canadians have cared much about mob censorship (perhaps because almost all of it has been directed against pro-lifers). Respect for free speech in Canadian society depends on Canadians having a thorough understanding of why free speech is necessary to the pursuit of truth, and beneficial to the development of good policies and just laws. Supporting freedom of expression only for opinions you agree with does not qualify as support for free expression. A society which thinks that it’s OK to suppress one opinion is not going to fight, suffer or sacrifice to defend another opinion.

Andy Ngo was invited to speak at UBC on January 29 about “Understanding Antifa Violence,” yet UBC ironically cancelled the event for fear of Antifa violence. How perverse: a man assaulted and injured by Antifa is prevented by UBC from speaking out against Antifa violence, because UBC seeks to appease potential Antifa violence.

By pandering to threats of Antifa violence, UBC emboldens and empowers Antifa. If UBC does not reverse its decision to cancel the January 29, 2020 event, then Antifa will see itself–accurately–as having the right to decide who can and cannot speak on campus, based on Antifa’s beliefs and values. Antifa will learn that their actions shut down conversation and cause fear, and thus their violent methods are, in effect, rewarded.

UBC President Santa Ono needs to ask himself whether he actually agrees that “UBC must be an open forum where members of the university have the freedom ‘to engage in full and unrestricted consideration of any opinion.’” Does Dr. Ono agree that “all members of the University must recognize this fundamental principle and must share responsibility for supporting, safeguarding and preserving this central freedom”?

UBC claims that “[b]ehaviour that obstructs free and full discussion, not only of ideas that are safe and accepted, but of those which may be unpopular or even abhorrent, vitally threatens the integrity of the University’s forum. Such behaviour cannot be tolerated.”

By canceling Andy Ngo’s January 29 event, UBC is tolerating and encouraging Antifa-like “behaviour that obstructs free and full discussion.”

UBC has until January 10, 2020, to reverse its cancelation decision. If UBC does not honour its original commitment to have the January 29 event proceed, it may have to explain its position in court.

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