The University of British Columbia (UBC) would rather encourage violence and get sued than honour its own mission to support free speech, enquiry and debate.
In late 2019, UBC agreed that The Free Speech Club would host an event in Vancouver on January 29, 2020, 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.
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.
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 that were used by fascists across Europe in the 1930s, who rejected debate and intellectual inquiry and instead took physical action to silence their opponents.
Mr. Ngo’s scheduled talk was titled "Understanding Antifa Violence." But ironically, UBC suddenly cancelled this January event for fear of Antifa violence, citing vague and unspecified "safety and security" concerns. 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. UBC’s actions are unprincipled and cowardly. For the sake of hoping to avoid conflict it sanctioned injustice and oppression.
By pandering to Antifa, UBC President Santa Ono is effectively repudiating UBC’s mission to be "a forum where ideas can be expressed, debated, and challenged, and where participants can gain insight and greater mutual understanding." Cancelling Mr. Ngo’s January event obviously prevented people from gaining "insight" and "greater mutual understanding."
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." Yet it appears that Dr. Ono believes that Antifa should have the right to decide who can and cannot speak on campus, based on Antifa’s beliefs and values. Antifa has now learned once more that its threats and actions are an effective way to shut down conversation and cause fear. Thus their violent methods are, in effect, rewarded.
Cancel culture is coward culture. It is a growing cancer on the body of universities. Every time a university gives in to a demand that an opinion be deplatformed or otherwise silenced it emboldens the likes of Antifa and other mob-based actors, including those who are entirely non-violent, to issue more demands. Appeasing unjust demands merely leads to more unjust demands: a lesson we could learn from history but choose not to. Censoring unpopular speech (or speech disliked by vocal and well-organized minorities) in the name of "safety and security" undermines both and empowers those who seek to silence their opponents rather than engage in debate.
Earlier this year, the University of Alberta was reprimanded by the Court of Appeal for having condoned the "mob censorship" of a peaceful, stationary pro-life display on campus in 2015. Using sheets, towels, banners, and mega-phones, the woke mob made it impossible for passers-by to view the signs, thereby effectively silencing discussion and inquiry.
Yet campus security took no action to stop the obstruction, or to discipline pro-choice students who boasted publicly on social media about having violated the Code of Student Behaviour by physically silencing a message they disagreed with. 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.
The Alberta Court of Appeal set aside the University’s $17,500 security fee, ruling in favour of free speech on campus. While this court ruling is good, it is maddening that taxpayer-funded universities insist on going to court to argue against free expression.
Likewise, the University of Calgary was reprimanded by a court for having found some pro-life students guilty of non-academic misconduct simply for having peacefully expressed their opinions on campus. This followed a similar ruling in which the U of C had wrongfully disciplined students over innocuous comments on the Facebook page, such as "I no longer fear Hell, I took a course with Aruna Mitra." The U of C also lost in court after prosecuting a man for having peacefully distributed socially conservative flyers on campus.
By refusing to reverse the cowardly decision to cancel the event at which Andy Ngo would have spoken, Dr. Ono has decided that UBC will join the shameful ranks of the University of Calgary and the University of Alberta as institutions that actually go to court to defend their censorship. The Free Speech Club is in the process of filing a legal challenge in the BC Supreme Court this week, seeking judicial review of UBC’s decision.
Lawyer John Carpay is president of the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms which represents The Free Speech Club and its members in this court action.