Protests disrupted a U of T St. George student-organized conference on February 4 that featured U of T psychology professor Jordan Peterson, the conservative-media The Rebel’s publisher, Ezra Levant, and additional speakers. The conference and protests were further disrupted by a fire alarm.
The conference was in collaboration between Students in Support of Free Speech and Generation Screwed, which are “two different groups” that wanted to come together over the issues of free speech and political correctness, according to the vice-president of SSFS, Geoffrey Liew.
The SSFS is a recognized ULife club at the downtown campus, and was created after the U of T Rally for Free Speech that took place in October 2016. Generation Screwed is a Canadian Taxpayers Federation group that aims “to inform and mobilize young Canadians who want to save their economic future,” according to their website.
In an interview with The Medium, Liew stated that although he was warned prior to the event by the campus police about the possibility of a protest, he still did not expect it.
“I didn’t expect it at that point, because after what happened with the October 11 [free speech] rally and with recent events,” said Liew. “It just seemed to me to be so infantile to resort to such tactics again, when it’s been proven time and time again that it’s inceptive, makes the disrupters look bad, and it really proves no point on their part.”
Levant, on the other hand, told The Medium in an email that he did expect the protests to happen, as February 4 was “a day of mass anti-U.S. protests, organized by professional left-wing agitators.”
An organizer of the protest that took place right outside the conference room asked The Medium not to credit their names with the fear of possible threats for their involvement in the protest. They stated that The Rebel “has a new strategy now where they will identify and get photos or information about people who protest them, and then they will put them on their website and offer bounties to anyone who identifies them.”
Levant refuted these claims. “The first lie is that their excuse is a lie. The only bounties we have ever offered were for actual criminals, and in all cases the police laid charges,” said Levant.
“The second lie is their real reason: anti-Semitic cowards don’t want to go on the record as Jew-bashing, gay-bashing racists. They’re ashamed of themselves. Same reason they wear masks at their riots.”
According to the event organizer, what they tried to do was called “no-platforming”, which is “an anti-high-fascist tactic, aimed at, if someone is trying to spread hate speech or fascism or violent rhetoric, […] you deny them the platform to actually express those views,” said the protest organizer, who further explained that the protesters joined outside the conference room when Levant started his speech.
The chants included “Fuck white supremacy,” “Fuck Climate Change Denial,” as well as chants against Trump and a “fascist USA.”
“None of those words apply to me—I’m not American, and I’m not a fascist,” wrote Levant to The Medium, in reference to the chants. “But the people dressed in black, wearing handkerchiefs over their mouths, carrying sticks, flipping over tables, and threatening a peaceful meeting on campus—those are actually fascists by definition.”
Liew claimed that the protest was rather against the conference itself, more than in it being against Levant.
“When they started chanting and shouting, it just seemed so idiotic to me, because they were shouting things like ‘Fuck White Supremacy’ or ‘Fuck Climate Change Denial’ […]. I kept trying to shout back ‘Why am I white supremacist?’” said Liew.
“I was rather perplexed, and I came to understand [that] their protest is a form of mindless solidarity—rally against an enemy which they perceived to be something else other than what we actually are,” Liew added, “We’re reasonable people who have disagreements amongst ourselves and have perhaps controversial opinions and definitely have a lot of disagreements, but to them [the protesters], we’re evil […].”
According to the organizer, they “frankly do not really pay those claims in mind.” They conceded that the conference organizers would defend themselves as advocates for free speech.
“When they speak to media, they are just going to say that we’re a group that’s interested in freedom of speech, we’re just expressing our opinion, […] but the reality of the situation is that these are people who are specifically involved in promoting hatred against minorities,” said the organizer.
The organizer also criticized Levant, claiming that he wanted to spread on The Rebel that the shooter of the Quebec City mosque was a Muslim “rather than a white nationalist Trump supporter.”
“It’s an anti-Semitic lie,” responded Levant to the allegations. “One hundred percent of The Rebel’s contingent at U of T that day were female, Jewish, black or gay. One hundred percent of the fascist protesters against us were white Aryans, many wearing masks.”
The organizer also conceded that the group of protests, which they state included roughly 20 people, decided it was “not acceptable” for Levant to speak at the university.
The fire alarm was pulled during the protests amid Levant’s speech, and the conference room had to be evacuated from the back door toward the exterior of the building. Levant continued his speech outside, while the people formed a circle around him, according to Liew.
“While we are disappointed that a small group of protesters caused panic and unnecessarily burdened first responders by pulling a fire alarm, the majority of yesterday’s event went smoothly and uninterrupted,” wrote Aaron Gunn, the executive director of Generation Screwed in an online statement on the group’s website.
Liew explained that although the campus police had asked them then to shut the event down, “at that point, there wasn’t really much that we as organizers could do to make Ezra stop speaking or make people stop listening to him, so we just packed up our things, while he continued to the end of his speech.”
The organizer of the event stated that they didn’t see who pulled the fire alarm. “I don’t know whether that was them or us or a random student pulling a prank,” they said. The organizer also added that after the campus police responded to the fire alarm by evacuating the speakers and audience from inside the conference room, and the protesters from outside the room, the protests still continued outside the building.
Among the protesters was also Cassandra Williams, UTSU’s vice president university affairs. She expressed in an email to The Medium her disappointment in having “such an event” at the U of T downtown campus.
“It is disgraceful that such an event would be held on our campus, especially less than a week after the University’s Administration spoke at a vigil for the victims of the Quebec Mosque Shooting,” she wrote. “Our community has a responsibility to stand up against threats to our rights, safety, and dignity, and to the rights, safety, and dignity of our peers.”
Levant explained that his speech at the conference was first going to be about Donald Trump and Justin Trudeau, as he has a new book about it, but he “spontaneously” changed the topic to be about free speech.
According to Liew, topics that other speakers discussed at the conference included post-modernism versus modernism, politics in Canada, what it means to be a politician in Alberta, energy, and how “Ontario hydro was misusing taxpayer money.”