A splintered movement: How the far-right found a foothold on campus

The fracture in UBC's free speech community cuts to the core of how these clubs can become magnets for extremists.

In November, a man in a “Make America Great Again” hat walked around campus. Accompanied by a woman with a large camera, he challenged random passers-by to debate him on immigration, gay rights and the merits of a white ethnostate.

That man was Professor Ricardo Duchesne, a University of New Brunswick professor who is seen as a major part of the Canadian far-right.

He didn’t fly across Canada to annoy pedestrians. He was invited by the Students for Freedom of Expression (SFE), then a newly-formed free speech group at UBC.

Duchesne was clearly trolling — literally asking people to become angry for the camera. But his visit to campus reflects a deeper trend in Canadian free speech groups as they become increasingly aligned with the far-right.

A tale of two clubs

Free speech groups began to appear on Canadian campuses in 2016 with a mandate to be neutral defenders of free expression and fighters of “political correctness.”

Since they began, these clubs have drawn accusations of being fronts for right-wing speakers.

The truth is a bit more complicated. Regardless of a club’s intentions, their mandate attracts people whose views wouldn’t be accepted elsewhere — such as white supremacists or Holocaust deniers — who want to use “free speech” as a tool to spread their views — something activists are forced to contend with.

“There are a lot of people within the free speech movement who don’t actually believe in free speech and use free speech as a way to get a platform for more radical views,” said UBC Free Speech Club (FSC) President Noah Alter.

“Often these views — their end goal is detrimental to free speech.”

The FSC has long outraged campus groups with a mix of right-wing events and offensive publicity stunts. In summer 2018, fourth-year history student Nicholas Kosovic, who was set to become an FSC executive, left the club. He felt the club had become a “Republican club” whose controversial events did more to sow division than encourage discourse.

“I never thought it was really successful in anything aside from outraging people,” he said.

“... That’s a fundamental flaw of the project — it involves people who don’t believe in it. The free speech issue has been undeniably co-opted by extremists.”

Kosovic founded SFE as a result, hoping it would be an antidote to “polarization on campus.”

But pretty soon, it attracted the same crowd. The SFE’s Discord chat, which was active for just a few weeks, was soon full of anti-Semitic memes and racist messages.

Some commenters discussed the ‘white replacement’ conspiracy theory and Enoch Powell’s 1968 “Rivers of Blood” speech, in which the British MP predicted rising immigration would lead to a race war. ‘White replacement’ does not just refer to a demographic change. It is a conspiracy theory spread by white supremacists who believe international governments are intentionally ‘replacing’ white people with non-white immigrants through liberal immigration policies.

“I’m not saying I’d want it to come to violence either,” one person using the name “Aryan,” a racial designation used by the Nazi Party to designate people they believed were racially superior.

“I just think it would be much more effective.”

Kosovic said he was unaware of the messages posted in his club’s chat. None were posted by himself.

But Alter and Angelo Isidorou, the FSC’s Director, say members of their club left to join the SFE because of prejudice against Alter’s Jewish faith. Kosovic denied the FSC’s claims and denounced all forms of anti-Semitism.

But while Kosovic never sent any himself, The Ubyssey found examples of SFE members putting the FSC’s initials in (((echo brackets))) — a hate symbol used by neo-Nazis to identify Jewish people online.

“While the Free Speech Club has defended the free speech of anyone — including communists, fascists, anyone on the political spectrum — we don’t want to associate ourselves with an organization that we don’t believe is genuine with their free speech,” said Alter.

The result is that both clubs claim to be the real vectors of free speech — and both accuse the other of pandering to the right.

“It’s kind of a blessing in disguise that the FSC attracts more radicals than we do,” said Kosovic.

A turn to the right

Even though the clubs acknowledge they’re magnets for extremists, they say none have succeeded in controlling their operations and that most members are well-meaning civil libertarians.

But by giving the far-right a platform, experts warn these clubs could be legitimizing extremism — and drawing vulnerable members into far-right movements.

Last month, the FSC attempted to host far-right podcaster Stefan Molyneux, who is known for promoting pseudoscientific theories of white superiority. He would have appeared alongside anti-immigration pundit Lauren Southern, who has been criticized for promoting the 'white replacement' conspiracy theory shared widely in white supremacist circles.

Molyneux, Southern and Duchesne are all considered major figures in the Canadian alt-right, leading many anti-hate researchers to question if “free speech clubs” are just a way to push these views on campus.

“You will find legitimate free speech activists within [free speech clubs in Canada],” said Evan Balgord, director of the Canadian Anti-Hate Network.

“Within the campus groups, however, you will also find individuals who are part of this debate not because they are pro-free speech, but because they are trying to advance a very specific set of ideologies, which being under the auspice of free speech helps them do.”

Both clubs have hosted speakers who lean to the political left. The FSC hosted an event with prolific left-wing Youtuber Contrapoints, for example.

“Our organization has immense political and cultural diversity internally,” said Alter in a message to The Ubyssey. “We do not invite left-wing speakers because we want to deflect against allegations of bias, we do it because we are unbiased.”

But objectively, these groups have tended more towards the far-right than the left.

“It’s not just that they’re providing a platform for these people,” said Balgord. “It’s that they’re terribly excited to have them.”

In Ontario, free speech clubs have adopted a more blatantly partisan stance.

Ontario’s Progressive Conservative government recently mandated campuses to adopt free speech policies based on the Chicago Principles, setting an extremely high bar for a university to decline to host a speaker.

But the Centre for Free Expression at Ryerson University rejected the policy’s premise, saying it’s a tool to justify allowing hateful views on campus.

“The policy is a deliberate political measure, borrowed from the American right and alt-right, to play to what the Premier [Doug Ford] sees as his political base,” wrote Director James L. Turk.

The only student groups consulted on the policy were Ontarian free speech clubs.

Michael Bueckert, a PhD student at Carleton University, was concerned about the policy and the province’s recently-announced Student Choice Initiative.

He wrote several statements on Twitter and in a blog post where he noted Michele Di Franco, an executive of of the University of Ottawa Students for Free Speech, seemingly had links to figures in the Canadian alt-right.

In response, Di Franco sued him for defamation, claiming $150,000 in damages. A crowdfunding campaign for Bueckert has raised over $20,000 to cover his legal fees.

Di Franco’s attorney did not respond to a request for comment

Bueckert says the irony of the case — a free speech club suing him for expressing himself — is not lost on him.

“[A free speech club] really does seem to be a space for people who want to listen to and be entertained by extremist views that are otherwise toxic in the community,” he said.

Attracting radicals

Campus free speech groups are largely harmless. But the crowd they attract isn't.

For decades, campuses have been hotbeds for radical political activity. Now, Balgord worries actual white supremacists look at these clubs as a way to spread their views and attract support.

“The alt-right neo-Nazi movements talk about targeting teenagers, but they also talk about targeting individuals who are fans of Stefan Molyneux and Jordan Peterson, as well as the Proud Boys,” said Balgord, who says he’s seen blatantly anti-Semitic and racist posts in other Canadian online free speech groups.

“Campus free speech groups can be another possible target or recruitment ground for this kind of activity.”

In a 2018 paper, Dr. Barbara Perry of the University of Ontario Institute of Technology and Dr. Ryan Scrivens note that “The Internet is exploited by the extreme right as a mobilising force.”

“...Right wing extremists have become increasingly reliant on the Internet to facilitate movement expansion – both numerically and geographically – to publicise messages of hate and recruit,” the paper continues.

Facebook has recently increased its de-platforming of hate speech, having recently banned white supremacist Faith Goldy from the network.

But Alter says he doesn’t plan to implement many restrictions like that in the FSC’s online group, which has nearly 2,000 members.

“We used to have a lot more Holocaust deniers in the group, but we sort of just mocked them until they left,” said Alter.

Alter has enforced a standard for deleting posts posts that advocate violence or threaten members and says he challenges blatant white supremacy in the group. He also set a new precedent of requiring UBC members to officially register for the club, signalling a real effort to prevent extremism from growing.

“We believe that discussing things is the best way to filter out horrifying views. By silencing them, they gain traction,” said Alter. “There’s that infamous saying that neo-Nazis always use: ‘The truth doesn’t fear investigation.’”

Much posting in these groups is framed as humour or irony. But Elisa Hategan, a regional coordinator for central Canada and the United States for Against Violent Extremism (AVE), says she worries even “ironic” hate speech could cause harm.

“The message has shifted from these horrible doctrines full of hate to comedy,” said Hategan. “To making fun of the left and the triggered snowflakes. And then when someone gets offended and says, ‘You’re a friggin’ Nazi!’ they respond, ‘What, you can’t take a joke?’”

In the 1990s, Hategan herself was a member and spokesperson for the Heritage Front — a Canadian white supremacist group. She has spoken at various colleges in the United States and Canada about her experience in the movement, and how she sees college-aged students being pulled into it today.

“Even though the majority of the people on campus might just be saying, ‘I’m politically incorrect and a free speech advocate,’ there might be some vulnerable people among those ranks who take that propaganda and lash out,” she said.

Recently, the presence of the far-right has become more visible on campus.

Ever since the SFE hosted Duchesne, several local neo-Nazis have begun publicly attending SFE events, including conspiracy theorist Brian Ruhe. The Ubyssey also obtained a photo of Ruhe wearing the SFE’s pin at another event in the city.

At a recent event featuring Meghan Murphy — a feminist who has been criticized for views on transgender people — Ruhe left the main event to film and harass members of a counter-protest, who did not engage him.

“They end up attracting people who are more and more angry, like a fly to a flame,” said Hategan.

“If you bring a clown to a circus, you’re going to get the circus. If you bring a clown on campus, you’re still getting a circus.”

Kosovic denounced Ruhe and his views, but doesn't see the point in banning him from events.

“How are you supposed to address these ideas? If you ban them, they’re going to continue to fester online,” he said.

“What do you do when people who want to co-opt you come in and they receive no traction? I don’t feel like anything needs to be done, because they’re not involved.”

But Balgord, who tracks and monitors public and private neo-Nazi chats, says giving these ideas a public forum is how their movements grow.

“Some individuals are going to find smaller, more private places,” he said. “But those individuals were already really deep into it [white supremacy]. ... When you take them away from a large public platform, it makes them harder to radicalize or recruit more people.”

Bueckert, who filed his statement of defence against Di Franco last week, says he or other activists cannot know whether or not any of these clubs sympathize with the far-right, or if any of their members will join a more extreme movement.

“It doesn’t really matter whether the group [considers itself] far-right,” said Bueckert. “What they’re actively doing is facilitating the rise of white nationalism in Canada, and that is incredibly dangerous and irresponsible.”