Legal action has been launched against the University of British Columbia for cancelling a planned speaking event featuring Andy Ngo, an American journalist who frequently reports on the far-left militant group Antifa.
The Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms is suing UBC on behalf of the Free Speech Club, which had been given the green light to hold the event on Jan. 29. However, the university pulled the plug on the event without notice, citing safety concerns.
A recently filed petition to the Supreme Court of British Columbia accuses UBC of violating its “duty of procedural fairness,” disregarding its commitment to academic freedom and free expression, and unreasonably violating the Charter freedom of expression.
“UBC’s cancellation of the Andy Ngo event is a textbook case of an unfair and unreasonable decision,” said Justice Centre lawyer Marty Moore in an interview.
“It not only cancelled a speaking event, it evidently did so because of the identity of the speaker, constituting an egregious violation of freedom of expression at UBC.”
Ngo, who is editor-at-large of the Post Millennial, a Canadian online news media outlet, has become well-known for his coverage of the Antifa group’s activities. He was attacked by Antifa members in Portland last summer and ended up in hospital with a brain hemorrhage.
According to the petition to the court, the Free Speech Club and UBC finalized agreements on rent space in November 2019. But in December, UBC decided to cancel the event without any prior consultation or discussion with the club.
In an email to the club on Dec. 20, chief risk officer Ron Holton cited concerns over the safety and security of the campus as the reason for the decision.
The Justice Centre had issued a demand letter to UBC President Santa Ono last December requesting that the university reinstate the event or face legal action. In a response on Jan. 8, university counsel Hubert Lai defended the decision to cancel, noting that the level of protest and disruption at events held at UBC had increased in recent months and the fact that Ngo had in the past been a victim of violence. Hence, the risk was too high.
“As the owner of the lands that comprise its campuses, UBC is legally entitled to manage access to its property in the same way as any other property owner,” Lai wrote.
Moore claims this defence is faulty, given the legal issues at work in the case. He notes that the university didn’t give the students any notice of the decision or provide them “with an opportunity to address those concerns,” or explain why they couldn’t be addressed.
“UBC is a government-created institution that receives hundreds of millions of taxpayer money each year,” he says. “Its apparent belief that it does not need to respect student rights and can arbitrarily restrict expression on campus is indefensible, in my view.”
Angelo Isidorou, the executive director of the Free Speech Club—a student organization formed in 2016 to promote free expression and open debate on campus—says the possible precedent the cancellation of the event could set is concerning, particularly as it might empower the so-called “heckler’s veto.”
“I think that when we have a publicly funded institution that bans anyone they deem controversial, or a ‘threat to safety,’ we enter a very dangerous precedent, and the only response to this mutation of academic freedom is a lawsuit,” he says.
“If UBC will not follow the laws of the land or even their own previously set laws, then we need to get answers in court. I am hopeful that we will succeed in court, and I believe this is a case that the majority of the public also aligns with us on.”
“You don’t have to agree with everything Andy Ngo says,” Isidorou adds, “but he should have the right to speak, especially as a victim of violence, and students should have the right to free expression.”
Last month, Ngo filed a lawsuit against Portland Antifa for assault, battery, and “intentional infliction of emotional distress.” He accused the group and others of trying to suppress his activities “through a coordinated pattern of violent, harassing, and stalking behaviour,” according to the suit filed on June 4 with the Multnomah County Circuit Court in Portland.
Antifa is a loosely organized coalition of self-described anarchists who use vandalism, violence, threats, cyberattacks, and blockades to shut down events or protest opinions they oppose. The group is involved in the unrest and mob violence currently plaguing some cities in the United States.
A UBC media spokesperson declined to comment for this article, citing the fact that the legal case is ongoing as the reason.