The UBC Free Speech Club: A safe space for whining about safe spaces

Since their founding, the non-AMS funded and unofficial UBC Free Speech Club has, while masquerading as a bastion of elevated dialogue, functioned as an echo chamber for controversy-seeking young conservatives. On their official Facebook page, they describe themselves as “apolitical and committed to cultivating an open dialogue on campus, where arguments are made with wit and reason rather than rhetoric and personal attack. We cherish a diversity of opinions and seek to promote an open debate stage, where political correctness no longer holds sway.” 

However, there is a notable contradiction between the official description and the club’s actions so far. Many of their social media posts and the events they’ve hosted have had a conservative or alt-right political angle. They are less of a diverse group of people who share different opinions and host legitimate discussions, and more of a conservative echo-chamber that survives on derogatory jokes, comments and attempts to provoke people.

Despite these past actions, however, the group does have the potential to learn from their mistakes and behave more like a legitimate Free Speech Club, and already there are some efforts to realize this.

Make Canada Great Again

On November 8, the day of the United States election, the Free Speech club held an event outside of the Nest where they sold red hats bearing the slogan “Make Canada Great Again.” Their rationale was to bring attention to the “minority opinions” of right-wing groups. The club’s intention in using “Make Canada Great Again” hats was, according to the club’s communications officer, Cooper Asp, to try and generate political discussion. The method and innately political tone of this event pretty clearly went against their “apolitical” description, while also raising concerns about whether or not the club was actually for free speech or just for conservative speech. 

On their official Facebook page, the admins called their demonstration a “performance piece with hats” after someone said that they were “just being assholes.”  The admin said that if it “irked” people, they “just have extra thin skin” because “sometimes being honest means being an asshole.” 

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On November 30, the club held an event protesting the AMS’s rejection of a men’s rights club outside of the Nest. The AMS justified this rejection by stating that the proposed club was already too similar to a club that already exists on campus — the Healthier Masculinities club — and that adding another new club would put too much strain on the student union. The Free Speech Club, however, saw this rejection as silencing non-feminist perspectives on masculinity. 

Mostly trolling

The club recently held a Reddit AMA where Asp addressed some of the questions that many UBC students had. One question had to do with the accusations that their club exists purely to be anti-PC and to provoke other students. The response admitted that “on the outside, their methods can appear that way, but are not intended to be like that.” Asp went on to say that “almost anyone who collides with us at the events will see that we're there just to talk.” 

However, Asp was previously quoted in another article as wanting to “get a rise out of people” in order to generate political discussion. So there is clearly a great misalignment with what Asp is saying, only bringing up more questions about the club’s intentions and goals.  

Despite their claims of being apolitical, these demonstrations of strong conservative views in their public social media posts and on-campus events are a part of the immense hypocrisies that run throughout this club. To fully witness this in action, look no further than in their closed Facebook group, UBC Free Speech Club Discussions. This is a group that anyone can request to join online, but must be approved by an admin.

Nearly every single post in this group has to do with politics, whether it’s about American or Canadian political leaders, immigration, feminism, gender issues, race issues or protests (such as Black Lives Matter and Standing Rock). 

Posts that stray away from politics usually have to do with fat-shaming women or mocking people for not liking their club. Notably, almost every thread is filled with memes and derogatory jokes rather than legitimate debate or discussion. There are some great posts with good discussions (although still with a heavy right-wing bias), but unfortunately they are drowned out by ones filled with old memes and racist jokes.  

To give you an idea of what these posts are like, we’ve selected a series of them that we believe best represent the kind of rhetoric that occurs here. Keep in mind, this isn’t a sampling of the most offensive posts — this list, in our opinion, reflects the level of discussion on the vast majority of posts. For the privacy of those in the group, we have hidden members’ names. To begin, this is the pinned post on the page outlining the guidelines of the group: 

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Here is an example of one such post that relies heavily on recycled and offensive memes and jokes (all photos below are from the same post):

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Beyond these comments, there was still intelligent discussion about sex and gender, gender’s social construction and the biological components of sexes. Those comments were quite long however, so they are not all included in this article.

Here's a post that could have been a great thread of discussion from many angles, but again, is turned into a conservative echo chamber scattered with memes: 

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Another post began just to make fun of the topics of a video titled “7 Struggles All Chubby Girls Can Relate To” and the woman in it:

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One of the page’s administrators flooded the club’s closed group back in December with a slew of fat-shaming posts, like this one:

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This post began with the promise of discussing a major political issue in the United States right now (Standing Rock), but unfortunately has comments suggesting that the police “use real bullets next time” and the admin even commented about wanting to kill protesters:

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The quote from an admin — who is Cooper Asp — in this post which says “use real bullets next time” goes against what he said just a few days before in the club’s Reddit AMA that the club was against opinions or stances that explicitly call for violence. 

When he was asked about these two contradicting comments, he stood by his word. Asp said the protesters were on private property and the police had every right to “put them down” because the protestors were essentially “terrorists.”

Interestingly, another admin of this club made a post regarding the use of ad hominem (attacking someone directly as an argument).

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His post seems to contradict the club’s intention of using arguments that are “made with wit and reason rather than rhetoric and personal attack.” 

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A club’s admin posted in the group about a UBC Confessions post that seemed to personally offend him, so he posted a link for everyone else in the group to go and comment on it:

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These were some comments from that UBC Confessions post that the admin of the club encouraged people to comment on:

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Here is another confession post where Free Speech's events coordinator Louis Jung and other members of the club made vaguely threatening comments on a post where expressed how happy they are to live in Vancouver, feeling that they are accepted for who they are in the city:

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It was difficult to find a post without any kind of trolling that just focused on discussion and debate. This is one of the very few posts that had mostly legitimate discussion. 

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These posts so far have all been from between October and December, the beginning of the group’s formation. More recently, there has been less trolling and more serious debate on the page. Whether this is due to the group becoming more thoughtful or because of the recent holiday break is unknown. However, here are some examples of their more recent posts: 

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And here's one that's both racist and sexist:

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Obviously, the club still has a noticeable right-wing leaning, but parts of it seem to have somewhat matured out of their trolling phase.

There was also a recent comment thread discussing Hitler and the Holocaust. In it, there are two main people who argue that the events occurring in the Holocaust were either exaggerated to promote a certain agenda or did not happen at all. There are multiple people who step in to argue against them, but the two people arguing back mostly just post conspiracy theories from YouTube to support their arguments.

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Asp argued that the comments the Holocaust deniers were making were nonsense and that it’s impossible to deny that it happened. A Jewish member of the club approached Asp and asked if he or one of the other execs could do something about these people. Yet “as much as [Asp and the execs] thought it was disgusting,” none of them thought it was right to kick them out, as “it would be hypocritical of [the execs]. They have their opinions, they were trying to express their opinions. Their opinions are crap, but that’s the point of free speech.”

The Free Speech Club versus UBC Needs Feminism

UBC Needs Feminism (UBCNF) admin Afie Bo got involved in a discussion with members of the group about why some Free Speech Club members were kicked out of the UBCNF Facebook Group. She said she had gone into the discussion page to “clarify the situation and explain why [the admins of UBCNF] run the page the way [they] do… as expected, the [public] response wasn’t positive.” 

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She did, however, receive a few private messages from members of the Free Speech discussion page who apologized for the behaviour of other group members. One person even said that the way Bo was treated “changed his opinions on how the group is run,” saying that members of the Free Speech Club were not actually treating her respectfully like they said they would. The club's admins describe themselves as treating everyone’s opinions equally and supporting the idea of free speech and open discussion. However, this member along with a few others expressed that this instance contradicted that description. 

Cooper Asp stated in an interview that he had no knowledge of what happened between Bo and other club members, and could not comment on the situation. 

Another example of the club contradicting their intended support of free speech relates to Donald Trump, who many of the Free Speech club members strongly support.

“I have yet to actually see any of them really promote free speech,” said Bo. “A lot of them seem to support Trump, which is fine, but I haven’t seen any of them condemn Trump for wanting to jail flag burners. Flag burning is one of the most basic and historical ways of showing free speech and discontent with the government… so it’s interesting to me that that one very basic instance of Trump [discouraging freedom of speech and expression] is something they’re not going to speak out about. 

“I think I would have less of an issue with the group if they just changed their name to ‘Conservative Members of UBC’ or something like that, because that’s what they are,” said Bo. “Putting the title of ‘Free Speech’ doesn’t make sense to me because it also implies that anyone not with them is against the concept of free speech, which is not at all what the situation is.” 

A big reason why people have the perspective that the club is mostly conservative is because of their first major event last term, the infamous Make Canada Great Again Hat demonstration. Cooper Asp acknowledged that it’s difficult to write off the event as apolitical because of the association with the now president of the United States. According to Asp, the intent of the event was not to make a statement in support of Trump, but to draw people in for a discussion about freedom of expression. 

“The talks that we initiated at the event weren’t centered around Trump. We just talked to them about free speech and … freedom of expression on campus,” said Asp. “If anybody came and talked to us, they would have realized it wasn’t a politically motivated event … Most people did not come up and talk with us, so on the [Reddit AMA], we saw a lot of misunderstanding.” 

Free speech or conservative speech?

While many of the Free Speech group members are very open about their conservative leaning, they tend to describe their group as “open to a diverse range of opinions” which might technically be true, but depends on your definition of the word “open.”. 

“If you’re within Free Speech, you should be letting in people from a whole spectrum of political views and opinions,” said Bo. “The way many members interact with others prevents people who are not politically centre or centre-right from interacting with them.” 

Asp acknowledged that most members of the club identify as centre-right or conservative, and agreed that “trading insults is not productive.” However, he added that the executives of the club “can’t exert control over the dialogues” within the discussion page and can only “strongly encourage” people to make conversations more constructive. Asp said he would “like to see less insults and personal attacks, but people can do whatever they want on the page to an extent.” 

In the general guidelines, he specifically says to “keep ad hominem attacks to a minimum.” When asked about this, he said, “almost everybody on our page has really thick skin and thinks that stuff is funny, so it never really gets in the way of conversation.” 

While the Free Speech Club's stated goals are centred around promoting dialogue, the group acts as more of a “safe space” for conservative students to express their views without fear of argumentation from the left.

“The intention of furthering free speech is great, but we live in Canada. We go to UBC. Your free speech is not under attack. Clearly, you have a platform to say whatever you want to say. Conservatives ran our government for many years. I don’t think free speech is under attack,” said Bo. 

Bo goes on to say that the club rides “a very fine line between free speech and hate speech.” However, Asp believes that hateful speech falls under the category of free speech. He believes that “if you’re just expressing your opinion, then it’s just your opinion. If you’re hateful towards somebody, you’re hateful towards somebody … but it’s still just your opinion. So just by definition, it should fall under free speech.” 

Living the dream

Through their controversial events and Facebook posts, the Free Speech Club has successfully put themselves in the spotlight at UBC. Whether you agree with their opinions or not, one thing is clear: this club is riddled with hypocrisy and contradictions, from their social media posts to their events and many conflicting statements made by members of the club, particularly both its communications officer and the events coordinator/founder. 

Having conservative or right-wing opinions is not the issue here. It is the inconsistency with what the club says it promotes and what it actually promotes. 

After conducting an interview with Cooper Asp, it became apparent the club has the potential to bring a lot of good discussion onto the campus. If they move forward by having events that promote opinions and dialogue from people across the political scale, then they could live up to the description and standard they’ve set for themselves. Just from looking at the discussion group’s growth since November, they have been making progress towards having more serious discussions. There has been a significant decrease in memes and offensive jokes, but there is still a dominant conservative presence.

Until any real and consistent effort is made by the club administration to bring a level of moderation into the discussions that are taking place, the UBC Free Speech Club can only be thought of as an often hostile, conservative echo-chamber built upon casual racism, misogyny, homophobia, anti-Semitism and violence-inciting rhetoric. If you're looking for intellectual, informed and open discussion, you probably won’t find it here any time soon.