Photo | Hana Nikcevic

The ramifications of holding a “Free Speech” event on the Vic campus

On November 4th, an event entitled “The Free Speech Comedy Show” took place at the Isabel Bader Theatre. Run in association with Students in Support of Free Speech (SSFS), the show was comedian Danny Polishchuk’s second attempt at putting on what he called a “pro-free speech comedy show.” The first attempt, originally scheduled in August, was cancelled after the locks at the venue were broken. The original poster for the show parodied the Facebook graphic for the “No Fascist T.O. Diversity Rally.” This rally arose in opposition to Ryerson University’s panel “The Stifling of Free Speech on University Campuses,” which featured UofT professor of psychology Jordan Peterson and former Rebel Media reporter Faith Goldy. Speaking on the Todd Shapiro Show (Episode 809), Polishchuk commented, “A talk called ‘The Stifling of Free Speech on Campus’ gets shut down–the ultimate irony.”

Polishchuk called the event a “charity benefit show,” with proceeds benefitting the Canadian Civil Liberties Association. He billed the show as defending “freedom of speech.” In the same podcast episode, however, Polishchuk admitted, “I don’t give a shit about the Canadian Civil Liberties Association––I picked them because I knew that if [protestors] tried to stop the show they would look absurd.”

Polishchuk’s choice to keep the same name as the original event despite the backlash indicates his unwillingness to acknowledge the legitimate concerns people had regarding his first show. Continuing to make light of “free speech” is unacceptable, not simply because it offends the people Polishchuk dismisses as hypersensitive, but because it trivializes the concern that the defense of free speech has been used as a pretence to make hate speech permissible. Ultimately, the show on November 4 did co-opt free speech as a cover for humour that further disempowers already marginalized groups to whom linguistic harassment is just one of many oppressive forces. A video posted by The Drop’s Facebook page shows Polishchuk making a joke with a punch line about they/them pronouns, saying that identifying as non-binary “was only invented six months ago.”

Because the term “free speech” has become so semantically slippery, it is unclear what to expect from a space that purports to be “pro-free speech.” In this political climate, we cannot give such events the benefit of the doubt. Debates on freedom of speech have led to increasingly aggressive actions: students reported finding razor blades under posters across campus that said “It’s Okay to be White,” for example, and Professor Jordan Peterson doxxed activists by tweeting their personal Facebook profiles. Most recently, Peterson announced (though later put on hold) plans for a new website that would allow users to identify professors and courses that they deem “postmodern” and “corrupt.” Peterson defines certain professors and areas of study “particularly reprehensible,” including “women’s studies” and “all the ethnic studies and racial studies groups.”

In this context, it is appalling that Victoria College gave Polishchuk the benefit of the doubt. It is dangerous to allow the Isabel Bader Theatre to become a gathering place for people who believe that their right to free speech is at risk. This is especially dangerous when we take into account Vic’s reputation for having a significantly left-leaning student body–proponents of hate speech disguised as “free speech” tend to view the left-leaning as the enemy. In another video posted on Facebook by The Drop, we can see that the audience was very comfortable laughing at the expense of non-binary people. This makes the space extremely hostile and unsafe for the LGBTQIA+ community at Vic. This is particularly concerning because students are generally unaware of what events are taking place at Bader, and could have been completely unaware of this potential danger. The Vic campus should be safe for all members of our community at all times. It should not be the students’ responsibility to check when they are potentially unwelcome in campus spaces.

The possibility for harm to students is reason enough not to hold such an event. UofT required Polishchuk to pay for extra security in anticipation of protests and pushback to the show—if the school believed that militarization of the space was necessary, why would they hold an event that carried such a risk of violence?

The administration at Vic seems unwilling to take responsibility for this event. VUSAC President Zahavah Kay reports that, when she and VUSAC Equity Commissioner Shailee Koranne expressed their concern about the event to members of the administration, “There was no member of admin who admitted to knowing about the existence of this show.” When The Strand inquired about Bader’s event booking policy in the context of the show, the response we received cited UofT’s Policy on the Temporary use of Space which states that “the provision of University space for activities or events does not in any way imply that the University itself has expressed or condoned the views which may be expressed.” In typical UofT fashion, Vic chose to fall back on the language of policy.

It is highly irresponsible for Vic to distance itself from the views of events that occur on campus. Allowing this event to take place in Vic space makes the college complicit in maintaining a climate that is hostile to marginalized groups, sending the message that these kinds of ideas are welcome here. Polishchuk can promote whatever he chooses, but it is our responsibility to criticize inequitable and marginalizing attitudes. Victoria College’s silence suggests approval of this event. They allowed it to take place despite concerns, and neglected to issue any comment addressing these concerns. Vic should have disagreed, and disagreed audibly.

Why was the title of the event not a clear enough signal for Vic to investigate and intervene? Was this a grave and major oversight, or is this an indication that the administration finds it extremely challenging to consider the perspectives of students belonging to marginalized groups?

Overlooking problematic titles seems to be a recent theme at Vic. In October, Bader also hosted the Keith Davey Forum, which posed the question “Social Inequality: Is it a Real Problem? Can it be Solved?” It is embarrassing that such a high-profile event, jointly organized by Vic and the Department of Political Science, was so poorly planned.

Vic could have effected some real change for the very problem it wanted to discuss by giving a platform to voices that have been historically underrepresented, dismissed and erased. Instead, it continues to undermine the value of these voices.

Victoria College needs to take concrete action to make our university environment less hostile. Not everyone has the privilege to separate discussion about social inequality and hate speech from the lived experience of social inequality and hate speech. Not everyone has the privilege to step away from these problems. For students belonging to marginalized groups, existing in this atmosphere is exhausting and can impede their ability to learn. Vic has the responsibility to take a stance and to take action on these forms of oppression because it has the power to do so.