By: Morgan Li
Recently, the Hamilton Spectator published an article announcing, in a sneering mix of opinion and loose fact, that McMaster is “developing an anti-disruption policy”. The decision appears to be prompted by the vicious right-wing backlash to Mac’s alleged failure to protect freedom of speech on campus, particularly in the wake of Jordan Peterson’s visit to campus last March.
In the article, Andrew Dreschel references a poor grade assigned to Mac’s practices and policies of “free speech” by a Campus Freedom Index. This index is compiled by the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms, a purportedly “independent and nonpartisan” non-profit organization. Their website presents an attractive face, framing the group as being in defence of respectable concepts like freedom, equality and constitutional freedoms. However, upon even the slightest further glance, this crafted image of impartiality falls apart.
The JCCF was founded, and continues to be led by John Carpay, a failed right-wing politician affiliated with a number of conservative advocacy groups and think tanks. The cases it chooses to take on and defend under the guise of free speech show a clear partisan bias. Their latest legal challenge is against Alberta’s Bill 24, which would prohibit outing LGBTQ+ children in gay-straight alliances. Previous JCCF lawsuits have taken up the case of an anti-LGBTQ+ couple that was barred from adopting children, a marriage commissioner whose license was revoked for refusing to marry same-gender couples as well as various anti-abortion organizations that have faced opposition.
That it has also decided to take issue with student-led protest of Jordan Peterson, most known for his refusal to correctly gender non-binary transgender students, is unsurprising. The rallying cry for “freedom of speech” that the JCCF, as well as many of those it defends, is so fond of wielding is one that has long been used by the far-right to obscure their activities and ideological agenda.
An article in the Torontoist from July this year explains this in detail, grounding it in a fairly recent history of white nationalist organizing in Toronto. Writer O. Berkman provides a background on Paul Fromm, a well-known self-identified white nationalist, and his cohort. Then a young University of Toronto student in the middle of a growing anti-war movement, Fromm and his fellows’ political involvement had begun in the condemnation of so-called far-left extremism and “leftist troublemakers”.
Under the guise of concern over their “right to dissent”, he has voiced support of (in his own words) American Nazis, Holocaust deniers and other white supremacists for decades, eventually establishing the Canadian Association for Free Expression for that very reason. All of these are talking points that should sound familiar to anybody who has been engaged in today’s campus politics.
More recently, the emergence and activities of student groups like the Students Supporting Free Speech at the University of Toronto have followed a close enough course to elicit deep concern. While arguing for the right of free speech of Jordan Peterson, the Halifax Five and similar figures against an “intolerant left”, SSFS has managed a dubious feat of drawing Fromm himself to one of their events. That the invocation of constitutional freedoms is little more than a deflection becomes particularly apparent too when we ask who, faced with institutional censure, isn’t afforded these defences. In the United States, Johnny Eric Williams, Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor and George Ciccariello-Maher, to name only a few, have been subject to far more severe and immediate consequences than Jordan Peterson for little to no justifiable reason, and these often accompanied by threats of violence and murder.
Politically motivated campaigns across the country now target progressive campus organizations, such as the Ontario Public Interest Research Group and other PIRGs, or McGill’s Daily Publications Society, for defunding. Rather than emerging to decry these, the groups that supposedly exist to innocuously protect freedom of expression are comfortably silent or, at times, even participate in these attacks.
Only in the last few weeks, University of Toronto faculty have expressed alarm over Jordan Peterson’s professed intentions to create a website to identify and advocate for the removal of university courses that he finds politically objectionable. By no coincidence, these are largely, in his own words, “women’s studies, and all the ethnic studies and racial studies”— fields of study that centre marginalized populations often left out of more mainstream curricula.
Similarly, it should be noted who it is to most vocally speak out against the right-wing campus demagogues that operate under the pretence of respectability — students who are more often than not racialized, transgender, women, queer and/or holding other marginalized identities.
The eagerness with which the McMaster administration now concedes to what are barely veiled right-wing demands is unacceptable, all the while it comes as utterly predictable.
Through these “anti-disruption” guidelines, Mac continues to demonstrate how the university remains a colonial institution that, complicit in transantagonism and white supremacy, will always capitulate to the far-right. Institutional condemnation of the “rowdy” students who stand against Peterson and his ilk, long now known to be responsible for harassment and violence towards activists, can and should be understood as a direct attack on trans, racialized and other marginalized students on campus. Make no mistake: no part of this debacle has ever truly been about free speech, and it is a victory to the far right when we accept any attempt to frame it that way.