How the Alt-Right Is Winning Over University Campuses

The movement has gained ground among students by blurring the lines between free speech and hate

Photograph by VV Nincic
VV Nincic

On a warm evening in late June 2017, an off-campus residential hall at the University of Toronto draws an unusually energetic crowd. Some of those in attendance are wearing red “Make America Great Again” hats. Others have donned buttons that decree “Socialism Sucks.” Almost all seven hundred of them cheer as Ben Shapiro, a conservative commentator and former editor-at-large of Breitbart News, makes a swift entrance. A frequent sight on American college campuses, Shapiro is the keynote speaker for tonight’s Canadian Freedom Summit 2017. Organized by U of T’s Students in Support of Free Speech (SSFS), the evening-long event promises to focus on the supposed erosion of free speech on university campuses.

In the past year, activists have managed to galvanize both liberal and conservative students under the banner of free speech. These groups are united by a belief that political correctness has gone amok on campuses. They all deploy a similar, and now common, strategy: invite a controversial (usually conservative) speaker to campus, and hope for protests and disruptions from angered students. Then, if all goes according to plan, the campus broils into a heated discussion about freedom of speech—often with some alt-right undercurrents. Such tactics have so far proven successful: on top of garnering national and international media coverage, such action prompted American Life LeagueAndrew Scheer, back when he was still running for the Conservative leadership, to declare that federal funding should be withheld from schools that do not protect free speech, echoing none other than US President Donald Trump.

Which is to say, the “free speech” movement is adept at turning public backlash into public sympathy. Even as recent events in Charlottesville have led cancellations of events that appear to preach division, such as a Ryerson panel on “The Stifling of Free Speech on University Campuses” and a white nationalist rally at U of T, the movement’s presence on campus cannot be so easily jettisoned. In addition to SSFS at U of T, student-led “free speech” have also recently formed at York, UBC, and Western. New SSFS chapters at Concordia and the University of Ottawa are also in the works. Far from fading away, the movement is only growing more entrenched, even as university administration, current students and the wider public all scramble to figure out what that means.

Back at the Freedom Summit, Baruch Harari, a third year student and finance director of York University’s SSFS, gushes as he introduces Jordan Peterson, the U of T psychology professor who gained notoriety for refusing to use his students’ preferred pronouns. Harari calls the professor genuine, praising his “eloquent” command of English. Moments later, the audience roars, giving Peterson a standing ovation as he makes his way to the stage. Peterson rose to free speech hero status last fall, after releasing his video lecture “Professor Against Political Correctness,” in which he decries Bill C-16, a federal bill that amends the Canadian Human Rights Act and Criminal Code to prevent discrimination on the basis of “gender identity or expression.” What truly sparked controversy (and some praise), however, was a remark Peterson made well into his 50-minute video: he called requests from transgender people to use non-binary pronouns (such as they, ze, zir) a threat to free speech.

Tonight, the free speech star launches right in. “So I’m going to talk to you a bit, briefly, about why postmodernism is wrong,” he says. He doesn’t smile. The crux of Peterson’s argument is that postmodernist thought has corrupted students in certain humanities programs (sociology and gender studies are his favorite punching bags). “I don’t think the postmodern neo-Marxists have a leg to stand on ethically or intellectually or emotionally,” he tells the crowd, encouraging them to “go after” such corrupted students with an “informed intellectual perspective.” For Peterson, “this is fundamentally a war of ideas and that’s the level of analysis that it should be fought upon.”

The postmodern framing is all part of Peterson’s appeal: he’s an academic who has spent half a decade at Harvard and another two at U of T. But by thumbing his nose towards the institutions that he’s worked most of his life in, Peterson is branding himself as an outsider intellectual who’s brave enough to take on traditionally left-leaning institutions. And his self-branding has yielded considerable success. Peterson has become a highly sought-after speaker among campus conservative groups, and online, pages upon pages of Reddit posts are dedicated to studying Peterson’s words and speeches. His YouTube videos have since consistently racked hundred of thousands of views, even on seemingly innocuous topics such as “Existentialism: Nietzsche Dostoevsky & Kierkegaard”.

What Peterson is championing is not particularly new in the world of conservatism: American conservative thinker William F. Buckley famously quipped that he would “rather be governed by the first 2,000 people in the Boston telephone directory than by the 2,000 people on the faculty of Harvard University” (Buckley himself was educated at Yale). Indeed, the right has a long history of centering outrage on its belief that university professors routinely indoctrinate students with Marxist, leftist ideologies. But few have been able to captivate a young audience as successfully as Peterson has—or have been as instrumental in revitalizing a concerted movement against political progressiveness on Canadian university campuses.

A week after the summit, I met with Marilyn Jang, a third year neuroscience student at U of T, and president of the campus’s SSFS chapter. She suggested that we meet at Sidney Smith Hall, home to the faculty of arts and science, also where Peterson often lectures. A ten-minute walk from St. George station, Sid Smith is unlike most buildings on campus. With large slabs of concrete panels wrapped around the main building, the architecture sings of an era when each square inch in Toronto wasn’t maximized to its fullest potential. The open space design is a perfect location for students to de-stress and hang out after class—and a prime location to host large rallies.

Not so long ago, Jang considered her beliefs far left of the political spectrum. “By today’s standards I would have been called a regressive leftist or an SJW,” Jang tells me, referring to the term “social justice warrior.” It’s a term that conservative activists use to describe those on the left who advocate around social justice issues—namely feminism and cultural inclusiveness. Jang’s change of heart in high school came after she began expressing opinions—such as her skepticism towards the fat acceptance movement—that were not as liberal as some of her friends’ views. Jang says this led to “huge fights” as well a lot of “shaming,” and ended with Jang parting ways with many of her friends. Today, Jang considers herself a classic liberal, although society would see her as a Tory, she jokingly notes.

For Jang, SSFS’s mission statement could be boiled down into five words: Sunlight is the best disinfectant. Jang reasons that free speech should be given to all, even the most bigoted and controversial figures—how else might their hateful views be defeated in public? “What happens if you don’t allow these people to speak their minds and to speak in public,” she says, “is that they will go underground and they will create communities that will fester and rot.”

Yet, critics argue that Jang and her group has been doing the exact opposite: not defeating the rot, but helping it grow. Instead of refuting controversial, oftentimes hateful views, SSFS had built a platform for alt-right groups to reach wider audiences. Although the group claims to promote a “non-partisan platform,” most of the speakers have people with right-wing credentials, like Rebel Media founder Ezra Levant and Wildrose Party member Derek Fildebrandt. While Jang’s group has hosted many speakers, including some who champion Islamophobia and others who peddle conspiracy theories, SSFS has never provided a counterbalance—intentionally blurring the lines between free speech and hate speech.

In October 2016, Jang and a group of U of T students who would go on to form SSFS decided to host their first “rally for free speech” at U of T’s Sid Smith. The keynote speakers included Peterson, of course, as well as former Rebel Media personality Lauren Southern, who once mocked transgender people by asking a doctor to change her sex designation from female to male. The event quickly escalated. Event protestors, among them transgender activists, attended the event, yelling “Shame! Shame! Shame!” at the speakers. Both sides hurled insults towards each other. At one point, a protester blasted static through the speakers. Minor scuffles broke out as students pushed each other, and campus police reportedly had to help a man who was grabbed around the neck by another attendee.

For the self-dubbed free speech advocates, it confirmed what they already believed: Controversial, usually far-right, voices were being censored, and political correctness has gone wild. It’s the same sort of narrative that Trump supports parroted after he received backlash for blaming “both sides” for the violence in Charlottesville. “Free speech has always been a tool for the oppressed,” says Jang, citing the push for gay rights and women’s rights. “Now that the pendulum has swung, and now that conservative ideas, even just slightly right of center, are being demonized and oppressed, freedom of speech has become a tool for them.”

Yet, the line between free speech and hate speech quickly becomes blurred when free speech advocates strive to gain attention, not for free speech, but their own political causes—and themselves. So was the case in mid-July, when U of T’s SSFS took over Queen’s Park to hold a support rally for the Halifax Five, a group of Canadian Armed Force Members who are part of the Proud Boys. The Proud Boys, in turn, are a nationalist group started by (now former) Rebel host and Vice co-founder Gavin McInnes. They describe themselves as “western chauvinists” who refuses to “apologize for creating the modern world.” On Canada Day, the Halifax Five disrupted a ceremony to mark the mistreatment of Indigenous people, waving red ensign flags (which extremists use as Canada’s own version of the Confederate flag). Many denounced the disruption, including Minister of National Defence Harjit Sajjan and Commander of Maritime Forces Atlantic John Newtown.

The SSFS support rally attracted figures such as Paul Fromm, who is the founder and director of the Canadian Association for Free expression and the international director of a white supremacist group known as the Council of Conservative Citizens. An unabashed nationalist with ties to the Ku Klux Klan, this July Fromm also organized a Neo-Nazi gathering in a Toronto public library. At the Queen’s Park rally, Fromm reportedly had access to a portable megaphone owned by SSFS. As attendees waved red ensign flags behind him, he addressed the crowd, “The Canadian Association for Free Expression is very supportive of the things you’re doing.” He added: “It is really important that you back the Halifax Five.”

SSFS executives have since tried to backtrack, and in a video statement crafted alongside other executives, Jang denounced Fromm as “one of Canada’s most bigoted and notorious individuals.” It did not go over well, and soon the backlash came from within the so-called free speech movement. Some supporters of SSFS questioned why they weren’t defending free speech for all. “They have smeared a fellow free speech activist as a racist and bigot while at the same time are virtue signalling to those who believe free speech is hate speech,” one commenter wrote on Facebook. Another scoffed, “Congratulations, you just won the Gold Medal for Mental Gymnastics.”

Cassandra Williams, a fifth year cognitive science and philosophy student at the U of T, is leading a resistance movement against Peterson and her campus’ SSFS. In the past year, she’s been active in counter protests at SSFS events, and launched an online campaign against the group. As a core member of the University of Toronto Students’ Union, Williams has access to a large megaphone, as well as the organizational resources and experience for advocacy work. As one of the few transgender students on campus, she also has a personal stake in the debate about transgender pronouns and rights.

Williams quickly decided she wouldn’t stay on the bylines. Soon after Peterson released his video on political correctness, Williams and a group of activists held a teach-in and rally at Sid Smith. The rally, which drew more than 100 people, was an event aimed at educating students about transgender rights and issues, says Williams.

The next week, the SSFS responded with another free speech rally, but Williams came prepared. Armed with a large portable speaker, Williams used her phone to blast white noise in an effort to disrupt Peterson’s speech. The strategy worked. Peterson, visibly rattled, abandoned the microphone, but not before quipping: “Well, as you can see, the opponents of free speech are able to make a lot of inarticulate noise.” In the aftermath of the event, a petition demanding Williams’s impeachment circulated online, citing an abuse of her student government position.

“I don’t think that being there blasting noise music was really any different than having a bunch of people with signs yelling,” says Williams. She added that she believed there was a responsibility among people in the university community to say, “This is unacceptable.” To her, the SSFS doesn’t promote free speech, but hate. Certainly it seemed that way in the following days as internet trolls began harassing transgender students online. As a result, certain transgender activists were “doxxed,” meaning their personal information was made public online. “The dominant conversation was—are trans people part of a cabal that is running the Ontario government?” says Williams. “Are trans people real? Are they doing it all for attention?”

Back at the Freedom Summit, Peterson is presenting a war plan. He says that he wants to create a series of videos for college-aged students. They will be for those he says, who “want to know the difference between an educator and someone who is merely interested in indoctrination and the production of the next generation of pathetic whining radicals.” The plan, he says, is to continue to identify the disciplines he thinks postmodernist thought has corrupted, and encourage students to avoid majoring into these disciples. He seems excited now as he outlines his plan. The videos could be hosted on a website, he says, that can help students distinguish between professors who he deems credible and those who he doesn’t. “Maybe we can drop the damn enrollment in those horrible courses by 75 percent over the next three years,” he says, “and just stop it in its tracks.”

The crowd roars in delight.

William Pang
William Pang is a student at McGill University. His work has appeared in The Atlantic, the New York Times, and the Washington Post.