Standing outside a University of Toronto conference centre last June, I sense apprehension. The neatly dressed men and women waiting to get into an event billed as the Canadian Freedom Summit know they are vulnerable to being accosted or outed as supporters of an ideology many find reprehensible. I worry, too — that I might be mistaken for one of them. Two men in front of me are silent, perhaps trying not to look on edge. One of them whispers to the other, “I’m surprised there are no protesters.”
Until now, a protest led by left-leaning student activists wishing to shut down the event seemed highly probable. Similar events elsewhere featuring divisive voices have been cancelled due to planned demonstrations, sometimes to ensure the safety of everyone involved.
This event has been organized by the University of Toronto and York University chapters of Students in Support of Free Speech (SSFS), ostensibly to raise non-partisan awareness of free speech issues on Canadian campuses. But it’s impossible not to notice a right-wing ideological slant, especially in the two main speakers, American conservative commentator Ben Shapiro and outspoken U of T psychology professor Jordan Peterson. Shapiro, who previously worked for the far-right Breitbart News, argues that the “hierarchy of intersectionality” ensures that the opinions of marginalized groups “mean more” than those of white people. Peterson denounces universities as indoctrinators of “the next generation of pathetic whining radicals,” and calls on future students to “stay the hell away” from “corrupted” disciplines like the humanities.
After passing two security guards who check my media pass, I’m escorted to my seat in the packed meeting hall next to two “reporters” for Your Ward News, a racist publication that the federal government banned from being distributed by Canada Post last year. The man nearest me wears a white hat bearing a familiar slogan: “Make America Great Again.”
Canadian universities have become epicentres of outrage. Left-leaning groups concerned about issues such as racism, sexism, ableism, colonialism and homophobia are determined to eradicate these social ills from campuses. They advocate the need for safe spaces and absolute intolerance toward intolerance. At times, they go as far as preventing those who disagree from speaking their minds. Meanwhile, the “free speech” faction grows stronger and stronger, its red-hot anger directed at so-called social justice warriors, whom they perceive as a dangerous ideological tribe. In April, Andrew Scheer, now the federal Conservative leader, said that, if elected prime minister, he plans to cut federal funding to universities that violate free speech.
Universities are supposed to be places for the exchange of ideas, not for ideological war. Genuine, constructive free speech is in danger of becoming a casualty of the tensions and divisions on campus. Often, debates on the issue are rife with contradiction and irony: proponents of free speech lay claim to the same “victimization” as those they accuse of stifling it; supporters of regulated speech disregard the free speech rights that give them a voice.
The irony is clear as I leave the Freedom Summit later that night, wondering if I’ve witnessed free speech unleashed, or another kind of safe space for conservatives to air their grievances, without any fear of reprisal.
As far as John Carpay is concerned, “We are in a state of war.” Carpay, a lawyer and president of the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms (JCCF), is a former candidate for the Wildrose party in Alberta. With thinning hair and a soft voice, he tells the Freedom Summit audience that this is not like war in the last century, when it was “very, very clear who the enemy was. . . . The war we’re in right now is very different, and it’s hard to fight because the enemy is within and hammering away at the foundations of the free society.”
At first, Carpay’s speech is anything but electrifying. A few minutes into it, many in the room are checking their phones. But he recaptures the attention of the crowd when he asks, “How many here are from Ryerson University?” Seeing several hands go up, he declares, “We’re suing your student union!” Suddenly, there’s rapturous applause. He explains that the lawsuit is aimed at the “social justice warriors in charge of the student union” who won’t recognize a group calling itself the Men’s Issues Awareness Society (MIAS) as a student club, “because it makes people feel unsafe.” His pouty and mocking tone is met with more roaring cheers and applause. “If you need a trigger warning before you get challenged by a new idea, because either you’re too lazy or you’re too stupid to learn how to think and to learn how to develop arguments,” he says, “then you shouldn’t be in university.”
Launched in 2010, Carpay’s Calgary-based organization is currently behind four lawsuits against Canadian universities or their student unions: one against the University of Alberta and three others against the student unions at Ryerson; the University of Toronto’s Mississauga campus; and Durham College and its affiliate, the University of Ontario Institute of Technology, located in Toronto’s eastern suburbs.
The lawsuits are part of the organization’s larger strategy to litigate free speech disputes — and to send a warning shot to other universities. According to Carpay, “Violate free speech and we will sue.” In an email, he told me, “The more successful precedents we can establish and strengthen through our litigation, the more we can help to secure the legal and constitutional basis for free speech rights on campus.” Plus, the significant costs and negative publicity universities incur from the lawsuits mean that many are likely to think twice before taking matters to court. Often, the JCCF wins by simply sending a terse warning letter to “spineless campus bureaucrats,” as a 2013 update put it.
Online and in public appearances, the JCCF portrays itself as a champion of free expression on campus, fighting against a left-wing establishment that supposedly dominates universities today. Its annual Campus Freedom Index garners extensive media coverage. Unfailingly, it creates the impression that free expression is imperilled on Canadian campuses. Each school receives a grade for its university policies, its university practices, its student union policies and its student union practices. Of the 240 grades the JCCF assigned to 60 Canadian universities in 2016, only six were an A. In comparison, it handed out a total of 32 Fs, a grade reserved for blatant violations of free speech. According to its methodology, if a university or student union “insists on continuing its censorship,” either by enforcing a past decision or defending it in court, the guilty party will continue earning an F each year until it ends the censorship or “until the court action has been concluded.”
Not everyone buys the JCCF’s methodology or conclusions. James Turk, director of the Ryerson University-based Centre for Free Expression (CFE), a hub for public education, research and advocacy on free expression, says that while the JCCF is helpful insofar as it highlights important issues, its “index is no useful guide whatsoever to the extent of freedom of expression and academic freedom on Canadian campuses.”
Before joining the CFE, Turk served as executive director of the Canadian Association of University Teachers from 1998 to 2014; he describes freedom of expression in Canada as “alive and well.” There are relatively few violations of free expression or academic freedom, he says, “and I find it ironic to be saying that, because I spend a lot of my life dealing with the ones that there are.” Almost all of them are handled outside of court.
Ahead of the Freedom Summit, I asked Carpay about the JCCF’s tendency to defend only conservative or libertarian causes. “We can’t control what happens in the world and who gets censored and who comes to us,” he said. But he asserted that “we will defend the free speech rights of everybody when they are threatened,” including pro-choice, feminist and Indigenous rights groups. It was a declaration very much at odds with his summit speech.
Sitting a few rows from the front, I watch as Carpay beats his war drum. “Realize that we’re in a state of war,” he declares. “It’s a war of ideas. We are fighting against relativism and materialism, hedonism, post-modernism, neo-Marxism. And our success or failure in this war of ideas is going to determine what kind of future that we have.”
In October 2015, fourth-year Ryerson University student Kevin Arriola applied to have the Men’s Issues Awareness Society officially recognized as a student group by the Ryerson Students’ Union (RSU). The club stated it hoped to raise awareness of issues that affect men and boys, such as higher rates of suicide, homelessness and failure in school. But, from the student union’s perspective, recognizing the group could raise other issues. In its explanation of its ruling against MIAS, the RSU Student Groups Committee cited MIAS’s affiliation with the Canadian Association for Equality (CAFE), which some consider a front for anti-feminist hate speech, despite its federal charitable status. The explanation also cited the group’s refusal to properly acknowledge “the systemic privilege that men have,” and its “violation” of RSU policies opposing violence, sexism and discrimination against women. Although MIAS had only been active on campus for over a month and hadn’t booked any of its proposed speakers, the student union also criticized the group for being unaware that certain guest speakers “could cause an unsafe learning environment for woman-identified students.” Specifically, the union worried about previous threats against feminists at U of T, which had resulted from the presence of a men’s issues awareness group on its campus.
Simmering tensions at U of T boiled over on the night of Nov. 16, 2012, when the men’s issues awareness group welcomed Warren Farrell, a controversial American author and men’s rights activist, to speak on disadvantages men face in western society. About 100 people protested the event, charging that Farrell was a misogynist and male-privilege denier. According to U of T’s student newspaper, the Varsity, 15 protesters eventually parked themselves in front of the auditorium, forming a barricade that prevented others from entering the building and attending the lecture. Toronto police and U of T campus police arrested one protester, and the lecture went ahead as planned.
A typically polarized debate ensued. Some students argued that Farrell’s talk amounted to hate speech and had no place on campus. On the other hand, some claimed that the tactics used to try to shut down the event, merely because some people found it offensive, constituted a gross violation of free speech rights. There’s no question some of the protesters’ actions were extreme. A video posted online shows one female protester verbally assaulting a man trying to attend, calling him “rape apologist, incest-supporting, women-hating f—king scum.”
The vitriol did not end there. A website called A Voice for Men, which was thought to have ties to CAFE, launched a “doxing” campaign, posting the names and identities of some of the female protesters, who became the targets of online threats.
At Ryerson, members of the student union had reason to believe the same could happen there: the 2015-16 student union president, Andrea Bartlett, began receiving threatening phone calls shortly after the union denied Arriola’s application for club status.
In denying MIAS’s application for recognition as a student group and in requesting that it take into consideration security issues when dealing with potentially controversial speakers, the union was clearly attempting to prevent incidents like the U of T clash from taking place on Ryerson’s campus. But in deciding not to formally recognize a group whose world view happens to be different from its own, the union fuelled the long-held belief among self-styled freedom fighters that constitutional rights are being sacrificed on the altar of political correctness.
The student union’s board of directors denied Arriola’s final appeal in January 2016. Shortly afterward, CAFE put him in touch with the JCCF, which has been offering pro bono legal services to the group and using the case to solicit donations.
So is there a level-headed approach to these issues? “The metaphor that’s a little crude, but helpful, is that my right to swing my fist ends at someone else’s face,” says David Butt, a Toronto lawyer and frequent commentator on freedom of speech. In instances where students oppose a controversial speaker, the solution is to have the talk and let demonstrations go ahead, or to have a talk and a counter-talk, or even a debate. “This all depends on how peaceful this can all be,” he says. “Because breach of the peace means all bets are off. . . . Whether that be violent confrontation or rioting or destruction of property — all of those are expressive activities that the courts have uniformly said can’t only be prohibited and punished afterward, but prevented in advance.”
The problem is that many pro-speech groups are taking cues from their American counterparts and being deliberately provocative, says Turk. In the United States, controversial personalities like Ann Coulter and Milo Yiannopoulos are invited to speak on campus, then organizers cry foul when the angry mobs arrive in protest.
“Universities absolutely need to make provision for people to speak, regardless of their points of view — so that’s not the issue,” says Turk. “But [these groups] concentrate on inviting speakers who will be as aggressively provocative as possible, because, in fact, their political interest is served when there’s a protest or the speaker is shut down or prevented from speaking. It’s really a libertarian political agenda that’s being played out.”
That doesn’t mean violations — such as shutting down controversial speakers — shouldn’t be challenged. Freedom of speech remains strong on campus today precisely because threats are perpetually opposed.
According to a January 2017 essay in the Harvard Political Review, universities have the obligation to promote and protect “academic safe space,” which encourages intellectual risk taking and defends students’ rights to raise uncomfortable ideas. In these spaces, such as university classrooms, the goal is to maximize free speech.
But another kind of safe space has arisen from the need for marginalized groups to gather free from discrimination or intimidation. These spaces let students know they won’t face specific kinds of oppression, according to the current Ryerson Students’ Union president, Susanne Nyaga. For example, she says a safe space for black students “allows them to be in a space where there are folks who have a better understanding of their experiences.” Nyaga believes that no space can be 100 percent safe. “But what we do try to create are safer spaces for particular individuals, especially for people who don’t walk through this world with a lot of privilege.”
Increasingly, the two types of spaces are overlapping — creating tensions on university campuses. Even in the classroom, Nyaga argues that when comments are “embedded in a kind of systemic oppression, where folks who have privilege might not recognize how their comments are problematic, then professors should take that opportunity to educate them without shaming them.”
For the most part, challenges to free speech occur on the fringes of university life, not front-and-centre, as some self-styled freedom warriors would have us believe. In Turk’s opinion, “The university is probably the freest place in Canadian society for the consideration of ideas and views and raising challenges to conventional wisdom.”
Those who question the level of freedom on Canadian campuses should consider Jordan Peterson, who continues to be employed by U of T, despite his proclaiming that universities indoctrinate their students into a corrupt ideology. Or the men’s issues group at Ryerson, which continues to operate on campus under the new leadership of three women, even as it sues the student union. Their presence on university campuses may make some people uncomfortable — but their existence serves as proof that the system works.
This story first appeared in The Observer’s September 2017 issue with the title “Clamour on campus.”