A free-speech advocacy group has raised concerns that freedom of expression is being eroded, especially on the once most open places of all – university campuses.
In 2017, a teaching assistant at Wilfrid Laurier University, Lindsay Shepherd, showed a video clip of a debate about gender-neutral pronouns to communications students. It contained equal time for the two differing points of view, but she was summoned before two professors and the manager of Gendered Violence Prevention Support and accused of violating the school’s gendered and sexual violence policy. She secretly recorded the conversation, where she was accused of creating a “toxic” environment and accused of breaking the law. The university later apologized.
Universities have an obligation to protect students, especially those from minority groups and are compelled to act in cases of hate speech. But critics say it is now unclear where the line between the uncomfortable and the unacceptable now lies.
In July, the University of British Columbia (UBC), in line with their booking policy, took an outside group’s booking for a talk from controversial anti-SOGI critic Jenn Smith. UBC made clear it did not always agree with “speakers controversial views” when accepting a booking but did so in the spirit of freedom of expression. The talk was picketed and then disrupted by protestors. A week later, UBC learned it had been barred by the Vancouver Pride Society from the city’s LGBTQ+ celebrations due to the booking going ahead.
In response, they acknowledged the event had upset some of their members, “UBC is deeply committed to the principles of equity, diversity, inclusion. We are aware that community members (particularly trans and non-binary students, faculty and staff) were personally affected by the June event. UBC remains committed to finding more ways to maintain a respectful environment for everyone in our community.”
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Earlier this year, Shepherd joined the conservative free speech advocacy group Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms (JCCF). It says they have noticed a growing trend where universities that are bound by their booking policies accept speakers only to then charge high “security fees,” which students often can’t pay, effectively “a censorship tactic” on who speaks on campus.
In the case of the Jenn Smith talk, JCCF says UBC charged organizers a $500 fee at the time of booking and then a further $750 later on, payable inside 24 hours or the event would be cancelled. On the day, the fire alarm was activated and three protestors, one wearing a mask, breached security before police were called.
“The $1,250 security fee risks a ‘hecklers veto’ — the power of obstructive and lawless individuals and groups to stifle dialogue and the exchange of ideas they disapprove of,” wrote JCCF in a statement.
UBC previously charged the university’s Free Speech Club close to $7,000 when they asked to host U.S. conservative Ben Shapiro.
Club director Angelo Isidorou agrees that institutions, like UBC, are right to complete risk assessments and provide security. However, he says protestors “weaponize” controversy by bombarding universities with emails and phone calls, threatening trouble, which causes fees to rise as the event gets closer. For the Shapiro lecture, he says the combined costs, including university security, hit six figures.
“We don’t know if schools inflate the fees on purpose or if they are needed because of extremist groups threatening violence [to those attending], but we can’t be held hostage by this,” he notes.
JCCF says the most prominent examples of universities charging security fees are one in central Canada charging a pro-life group $17,500, another charging a student society’s Unpopular Speakers circuit $5,000 and, after it was paid, $8,000 for the next engagement. Recently, JCCF says a university in Alberta tried to charge a student group $28,000 after they requested space to host a speaker.