Over the last few weeks pressure from faculty, staff and students calling on the university to cancel an anti-SOGI (Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity) talk has mounted. But despite these concerns, the event is expected to go ahead as planned on June 23.
The talk titled "The erosion of freedom: How transgender politics in school and society is undermining our freedom and harming women and children," will be presented by Jenn Smith. Smith identifies as a transgender man, but disagrees with what he refers to as “transgender ideology,” and has been an outspoken critic of BC’s sexual orientation and gender identity educational resource, SOGI 123.
In a statement released on June 14, UBC cited the 1976 Senate policy on freedom of speech explaining why the administration would not interfere with the event scheduled by an outside organizer.
“Behaviour that obstructs free and full discussion, not only of ideas that are safe and accepted, but of those which may be unpopular or even abhorrent, vitally threatens the integrity of the University's forum,” reads the statement.
The statement further articulated that the university celebrates its transgender and non-binary students, faculty and staff, and directed anyone with safety concerns to contact the RCMP or Campus Security.
UBC Provost Andrew Szeri previously stated that freedom of expression around controversial topics is integral to the university’s support for academic freedom.
“Selectively shutting down conversations on complex and challenging topics undermines that crucial foundation that enables challenge of the status quo. Ultimately, silenced opinions are not subject to ‘full and unrestricted consideration.'” reads the statement.
UBC community responds
Many members of the UBC community have spoken out against not only the event itself but also UBC’s response to it.
The Association for Administrative and Professional Staff (AAPS), which represents approximately 5,000 staff at UBC, wrote a letter to President Ono renouncing the university’s decision to host the event on the basis of freedom of speech. Executive Director of AAPS, Joey Hansen said the association received several complaints from staff regarding safety concerns which prompted their response.
“By allowing this event on campus, the University is telling the campus community that it values the so-called 'free speech rights' of hate mongers more than the safety and well-being of the University community,” reads the letter.
UBC VP Human Resources, Barbara Meens Thistle responded to the letter upholding the university's position on inclusivity and diversity.
“UBC Board of Governor’s Policy 107: Booking and Rental of UBC Space states that UBC’s commitment to freedom of expression includes speakers who book UBC space for events independently, as is the case in this instance,” reads the response.
Hansen noted that the university can refuse booking requests from external organizations “These [events] don’t have anything to do with the campus community … the university has no obligation to give them a platform,” he said.
UBC Faculty Association joined the AAPS and sent a letter to the chair of the UBC Board of Governors, Michael Korenberg on June 21 expressing concerns about about the impacts the event could have on their members as well as UBC's justification for continuing to host it.
"Because the June 23 speaker is not a member of the UBC community and has not been invited to speak by anyone in the community, no issue of academic freedom is raised by this event," reads the letter.
UBC Students Against Bigotry (SAB) has also been outspoken online about the event.
In a Facebook post titled “No safe space for Jenn Smith at UBC!” SAB argued that the university was providing a platform for hate speech against the LGBTQIA2S+ community and raised concerns about Smith’s connections to the white supremacist group, Soldiers of Odin, who have previously served as his bodyguards.
“SAB is dismayed, though not surprised, that our university would prioritize the ignorant and hateful speech of provocateurs ahead of the safety and well-being of our community, especially during Pride Month,” reads the post.
Jonathan Turcotte-Summers, who is a member of UBC Students Against Bigotry, said the university isn’t doing enough to protect students when controversial figures come to speak on campus.
“We know what these people are going to say. They have plenty of platforms already,” Turcotte-Summers said.
“So what’s the point? The point is to make people feel unsafe. The point is to make people feel threatened. The point is to open up a window for far-right extremists.”
While the talk is expected to continue, a counter-event called “Rally in Support of Trans Rights!” hosted by BC Families for Inclusivity will also take place.
The event organizer and founder of BC Families for Inclusivity, Stacey Wakelin, said the rally will be a peaceful demonstration as well as an opportunity for members of the transgender community and their allies to come together and show their support for trans rights.
“We’re purposefully meeting away from the event location because this really isn't about … getting in the way of the event,” Wakelin explained. “It’s about supporting the trans community and letting UBC know that we don’t think this is okay.”
This article has been updated to include the statement from the UBC Faculty Association.