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UBC threatened with legal action over free speech concerns after cancelling event

UBC threatened with legal action unless the cancellation of a speaking event is reversed.
The Free Speech Club had booked a UBC campus venue to hear from an editor of a right-wing news site speak about anti-fascist violence. But as Nadia Stewart reports, the club found out last month the talk had been canceled.

The University of British Columbia has been threatened with legal action for cancelling a planned speaking event featuring a right-wing U.S. journalist who was expected to discuss leftist extremism.

The event set for Jan. 29 that included Andy Ngo, editor-at-large for the Post Millennial, was cancelled after the Vancouver university says the “safety and security of UBC students, faculty, staff and infrastructure was at risk” over repeated threats of violence.

Ngo and his supporters have contended the threats have come from local Antifa groups — the very groups Ngo was set to discuss. Those claims have not been substantiated.

UBC Free Speech Club executive director Angelo Isidorou, who booked the event, says the university’s decision is troubling.

“It’s just emboldening these groups,” he said. “I think the school is now taking a new direction that we feel is unconstitutional and unethical.”

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Isidorou says the contract signed between the Free Speech Club and Ngo was approved by the university in November, and a deposit to book the room at Robson Square was also paid.

But in late December, Isidorou says he got a call from UBC’s chief safety officer Ron Holton, who said the university executive team had decided to cancel the event.

“[He said] they think this is too controversial, the risk is too high, they’ve gotten threats, so they’re going to cancel the event,” he said.

“They just said, ‘that’s that. We don’t know how to handle these protests, and our hope is that by cancelling these controversial events, things will simmer down with these groups and they won’t do it anymore.’ And our reaction to that was negative.”

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The university did not say why the risk assessment was conducted after payment was accepted, only saying the assessment was done after the school learned of the booking.

“The university will continue to evaluate any future event bookings utilizing our risk assessment approach in order to ensure the safety and security of our campus community,” Holton said in a statement.

Isidorou says he’s not aware of any threats towards the university, but the Free Speech Club has received various threats from anonymous accounts.

He argues that’s not enough justification to cancel the event, especially since security for the Ngo event was never discussed.

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“I’m always ready for that call where UBC says, ‘we need to bring in guards because it’s going to be dangerous, so we invoice you X amount,'” he said, pointing to past events where the club has paid thousands of dollars for security.

The Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms (JCCF) sent a letter to UBC president Santa Ono on Dec. 31 threatening legal action for breach of contract if the university does not reinstate the event.

In the letter, the JCCF quotes UBC’s provost and vice president academic Andrew Szeri, who states the university “must be an open forum where members of the university have the freedom ‘to engage in full and unrestricted consideration of any opinion’” in a statement featured on the UBC website.

The letter also accused UBC of caving to the “heckler’s veto”, saying it is emboldening threats against free expression.

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“Concerns for safety and security must be addressed in accordance with Canada’s rule of law as a free and democratic society,” Marty Moore with the JCCF writes in the letter. “Freedom must not be sacrificed to fear.”

Isidorou says Ngo was asked to speak as part of a series on radicalism hosted by the Free Speech Club, which is independent of the university.

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He adds Ngo would have brought an “interesting take” on radical violence, as Ngo claims he was attacked by Antifa members while covering a rally in his home of Portland, Ore., in June 2019.

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Ngo was hit with milkshakes and beaten by unidentified assailants believed to be part of the Antifa movement, leaving him with a brain injury. Claims that the milkshakes contained concrete have not been substantiated.

Comments on the Facebook pages for the UBC Students Against Bigotry group — who vowed to stop Ngo’s event — and a Vancouver Antifa chapter mentioning concrete milkshakes were later mentioned in the Post Millennial‘s own coverage of UBC’s decision.

In an interview on Global News Radio’s John Oakley Show on Thursday, Ngo said he planned to discuss the spread of “radicalized left-wing violence” from the U.S. into Canada.

He specifically mentioned the showdown between an elderly couple and protesters at a Hamilton event for People’s Party of Canada leader Maxime Bernier during the federal election campaign in October.

“Regardless of what people may think of my views and my writing and my reporting, this really is the death of academia if it does not protect the access to information,” he said.

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Ngo has come under fire for allegedly aligning himself with far-right groups and asking them for protection, including the Proud Boys group whose presence was being protested at the Portland rally he was covering.

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UBC itself has been criticized for hosting other controversial figures in the past, including a June event featuring Jenn Smith, who speaks on “the dangers” of “transgender ideology.”

Isidorou says he’s hopeful the university will change its mind and reinstate the Ngo event, arguing it could lead to a slippery slope.

“We have a Charter of Rights that tells us publicly funded institutions … need to be politically neutral,” he said. “Otherwise, we’re getting into 1984 territory.”

—With files from Nadia Stewart