Free speech under fire: why men’s rights groups are censored on campus
Archive 2015 Apr 21, 2015 Matt Allen
Universities and colleges are supposed to be institutions of higher learning where ideas, arguments and theories can be freely expressed and debated by students and teachers in public discourse. But when it comes to men’s rights activism (MRA), many student unions consider those groups misogynistic and hateful. One need not bother apply for campus club status.
A couple of years ago, two female Ryerson students tried to form a men’s issues awareness club, but were soon rejected by the university’s student union (RSU) on the grounds that they were not in compliance with RSU policies -this, only after the RSU made last minute policy changes that forbid the formation of groups not women centered in discussions of gender equality.
Anjana Rao, an economics major at Ryerson is one of those students and says she just wanted to create a space to discuss men’s issues. “The goal was really to just talk about it from different perspectives and different ideas about what kinds of issues were happening in society towards men,” she says.
At the time, RSU president Rodney Diverlus claimed the group was affiliated with the online publication, A Voice For Men (AVFM), and the Canadian Association For Equality (CAFE) charity. In an official response, Diverlus said “These are groups that are, in some jurisdictions, considered to be a hate group, become known to have profiled women on campuses who speak against them, and they are tied to individuals who not only go out of their way to negate the struggles of women but can also create some problematic discourse on language around the idea of women’s rights.”
Rao, a self proclaimed feminist, says her group was not at all affiliated with AVFM or CAFE, calling RSU a “very corrupt organization.”
Regardless, “You can’t hold a men’s issues campus club accountable for A Voice For Men,” says Michael Kennedy, communications and development coordinator of the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms (JCCF), “nor can you say that A Voice For Men has made hateful comments. Certainly the law hasn’t ruled that A Voice For Men has made any criminally hateful comments.”
The JCCF was founded in 2010 to educate Canadians about their constitutional freedoms as well as provide pro bono litigation services to Canadians whose freedoms have been violated. The centre produces a Campus Freedom Index Report every year, which comprehensively looks at the state of free speech at 52 Canadian universities and their student unions and rates them with a letter grade on their commitment and obligation to protect free speech.
In their 2014 report authored by Kennedy, the JCCF gave the RSU a ‘D’ for policies and an ‘F’ for practices of “censoring students with views they dislike.” No one from the RSU returned repeated voice mail and e-mail requests to comment on this story.
It’s not surprising for the RSU to take such a strong stance against MRA groups. The Canadian Federation of Students (CFS), which consists of over 500,000 students from 80 different Canadian college and university student unions, including the RSU, passed a motion to amend its Sexual Assault and Violence Against Women on Campus policy in 2013.
According to the motion, MRA groups “provide environments for sexism, patriarchy, and misogyny to manifest and be perpetuated on campus,” and “promote misogynist, hateful views toward women and ideologies that promote gender equity, challenges women’s bodily autonomy, justifies sexual assault, and decries feminism as violent.”
Jessica McCormick, the CFS national chairperson says she endorses free speech, but if groups use language or take actions that “offend or insult or demean a group of people… or incite some sort of hatred or violence, then that is not free speech,” she says. “That by definition is hate speech.”
Kennedy says they can’t just make allegations like that, even if they personally consider these groups hateful. “The legal definition of hate speech is very clear and it’s very narrow,” says Kennedy, “and what these student unions are trying to say justifies censorship is not in fact hate speech, and these [MRA] groups should be allowed to operate on campus.”
The CFS motion also condemned the Canadian Association For Equality (CAFE), which McCormick says, “operates under the guise of talking about men’s rights issues, but in fact, discriminates against women.”
Apparently, these “facts” are based on the claims made by some student union representatives, who McCormick says, “experienced stalking and online harassment as a result of their disagreeing with the [CAFE] organization.”
However, no police charges from any CFS member being stalked, harassed, or assaulted by CAFE have ever been laid and aside from hearsay, McCormick could not offer any proof to these claims, including the allegation that CAFE has “offered monetary rewards for personal information on students who have opposing viewpoints.”
Justin Trottier, the president of CAFE, rejects the allegations completely and says the only time they’ve ever offered any monetary reward was when a woman had been assaulted at Queens University about a week before a CAFE event. Trottier says he offered a reward to “anybody who came forward with assistance to the police that would aid in an arrest of the perpetrator of the violence against this young woman,” but no one took him up on that offer.
CAFE is no stranger to push back for hosting events to raise awareness of men’s issues on campus. Trottier recalls a protest at the University of Toronto in 2012 –which to him resembled more of a riot, with radical feminists caught on video blocking the event, harassing students, calling them “scum” for daring to attend a talk on male suicide by speaker, Warren Farrell.
Other such events hosted by CAFE featured University of Ottawa’s English professor Janice Fiamengo, who has received a similar unwelcoming by radical feminists on multiple occasions. “I have had the fire alarm pulled at two of my talks,” says Fiamengo, where “security officers showed themselves completely unable to deal with disruptive protestors who blew horns, banged drums, and sang “revolutionary” songs for about 45 minutes as I tried to begin my speech.”
One talk Fiamengo made at her own university barely got off the ground as students felt it was their constitutional right to express free speech by silencing Fiamengo’s.
“It is illegal under the criminal code to obstruct somebody who’s trying to engage in discussion, who’s trying to practice their constitutional right to free expression,” says Kennedy. “So when a group of protestors come in and try to shout down a speaker, they are acting criminally and the university’s obligation in those cases is to prosecute them criminally and to hold them accountable.”
Fiamengo says the “objections to my talk included that I ‘was a harsh critic of feminism’ and that I ‘denied the existence of rape culture.’ Those alone are now presumed to constitute hate speech,” she says.
At another talk entitled, “What’s Equality Got To Do With It?” Fiamengo found herself in the hot seat yet again, when Queen’s philosophy professor Adele Mercier openly criticized her for not producing any empirical evidence on many of Fiamengo’s claims. But Fiamengo did cite the works of Christina Hoff Sommers, who has a long history of thoroughly debunking faulty statistics on the prevalence of rape and sexual assault.
But the primary issue of the talk, Fiamengo later said, is that men are having “trouble forming a men’s issues awareness society on any university campus in Canada today,” and asked the audience, mostly full of feminists and gender studies majors, “Why isn’t there a public outcry on the university campuses about it?”
“Because the men’s rights movement is blaming feminism,” cried Mercier. To which Fiamengo replied, “So what? They have every right to do so.”
Mercier says MRA groups have no business on university campuses, comparing them and Fiamengo to the Ku Klux Klan. Mercier claims she’s never seen or heard of any men’s rights group “that’s actually seriously considering men’s issues.” She might want to check out CAFE’s centre for men and families, Trottier says. They offer therapy, counseling, peer support and other health programs, serviced by men and women.
McCormick says the CFS does not consider opposition to feminism hate speech, but that “any conversation about equality [is] particularly rooted in a discussion of feminism and that discussions on equality have to be rooted in some sort of feminist analysis.”
Many MRAs take issue with that. Imagine how conservatives would feel if a student union said any political discussion must be rooted in some sort of liberal analysis. Talk about higher learning.