On October 31, 2018 The Free Speech Club (FSC) hosted right-wing commentator Ben Shapiro — best known for his “facts don’t care about your feelings” mantra — for a sold out event at the Chan Centre at UBC. This event was held despite significant protest from university students, faculty, and the AMS, which released a statement noting that Shapiro’s talk could make “transgender, queer, Indigenous, Muslim and other marginalized members of our community feel threatened.” These concerns about Shapiro stem from his career as a commentator, during which he has called homosexuality a sin, labeled women who have abortions as “baby-killers,” and claimed that “Israelis like to build” while “Arabs like to bomb crap and live in open sewage.” Despite outcry, the event became the club’s largest ever, with an audience of 1,300.
The Shapiro event and the rightful anger surrounding it is not an isolated incident. The FSC has hosted Dr. Jordan B. Peterson, known for his protest and violation of Bill C-16, five times. Peterson publically expresses his refusal to use students’ and colleagues’ correct pronouns and encourages others to refuse to do so as well, arguing that it is a violation of free speech. Following a Peterson-led rally at the University of Toronto in October 2016, a number of transgender students reported that they had received anonymous online threats, as reported in The Globe and Mail. Similarly, the FSC will host an event in March at the Hellenic Community of Vancouver, featuring men’s rights activist, Stefan Molyneux and self-proclaimed anti-feminist, Lauren Southern. It is worth noting that both speakers support white genocide conspiracy theories. Southern, who was born in Surrey, BC, has — in tweets that are now deleted — perpetuated false rumours from 4chan blaming the Quebec City mosque shooting on Syrian refugees, and has also argued against multiculturalism, claiming it “will inevitably fail unless 50 percent of the population believes in Western culture.”
From this brief list highlighting some of the more notorious speakers invited by the FSC, one could be forgiven for assuming that the club bills itself as a conservative or right-wing organization that regularly engages with the alt-right. However they instead describe themselves as “nonpartisan and committed to cultivating an open dialogue on campus, where arguments are made with wit and reason, rather than rhetoric and personal attack.” Their actual objective — obvious though unstated — is ironically summed up best by Shapiro himself, who publicly stated that, “The only reason to have a conversation or be friends with anyone on the left is if you’re in public in front of a large audience and your goal is to humiliate them as badly as possible.” This is perfectly demonstrated through the Q&A segments at FSC events, in which those seeking to challenge the speakers are given preference in line. Though this is billed as the FSC’s commitment to “good faith” and an opportunity for “open debate,” its sole purpose is to create short Youtube clips with titles such as “Ben Shapiro DISMANTLES Third Wave Feminism” and “Ben Shapiro SHREDS Pro-Choice Argument,” both of which are actual Youtube videos from his Chan Centre lecture.
In addition to the club’s glaring hypocrisy surrounding the issues of partisanship and open-debate, there is the issue of how individuals and organizations can effectively protest them and their events. The FSC and many of their invited speakers rely on attempts at protest and censorship, citing it as proof of the so-called “intolerant left,” and using it to convince their supporters of the importance of defending the nebulous concept of free speech, regardless of its content and effects. This is not to say that progressive groups can afford to simply ignore the FSC, as they are one of the largest organizations operating on UBC’s campus and their actions have severe consequences for marginalized individuals and communities.
Unfortunately, UBC’s policies regarding Academic Freedom and Freedom from Harassment and Discrimination seem contradictory and therefore unhelpful in dealing with the matter. As written on UBC’s Vancouver Academic Calendar, UBC seeks to ensure that members of the university enjoy the right to “to teach and to learn unhindered by external or non-academic constraints, and to engage in full and unrestricted consideration of any opinion” and that “Behaviour 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.” In contrast, the university’s policy on Freedom from Harassment and Discrimination states that the UBC “is committed to ensuring that all members of the University community — students, faculty, staff, and visitors — are able to study and work in an environment of tolerance and mutual respect that is free from harassment and discrimination.” Mutual respect and discrimination are both ill-defined by the university, however, which deems the ideas of figures like Shapiro and Peterson as merely “controversial, or offensive” (per provost Andrew Szeri’s statement regarding controversial speakers at UBC), but not discriminatory. By inviting these speakers, the FSC has taken advantage of Academic Freedom and the university is, at best, incapable of preventing this and, at worst, uninterested in doing so.
Ensuring that individuals have the freedom to express themselves and feel safe to contribute their voice to the public dialogue is important work, especially on a university campus, but the Free Speech Club is not remotely interested in facilitating this work. Rather, they operate as attention-seeking trolls, choosing to focus on “triggering the libs,” instead of making any attempt to elevate marginalized voices. The positions of the FSC and their invited speakers are antithetical to the culture and community that UBC — an internationally renowned university that advocates for plurality and intercultural dialogue — claims to foster. Furthermore, the university is located on unceded Musqueam territory, and therefore owes respect to First Peoples by not allowing dangerous and hateful rhetoric, and by encouraging all people to contribute to the conversation, free from the risks of xenophobic attacks and threats.
If the FSC were truly committed to “cultivating an open dialogue,” then their website’s list of “notable” speakers would not consist of reactionary white men, all of whom work to perpetuate the marginalization and silencing of women, BIPOC, queer folk, and the transgender community. It is true that open dialogue and good-faith debate provides opportunities for learning, growth, and even healing, but that requires all voices — especially those which have been silenced — to have a platform, not just the ones who have been loudest.