UBC commended for allowing Jenn Smith presentation but warned that security fees illegally undermine free speech on campus

The Justice Centre has written to University of British Columbia (UBC) president Santa J. Ono, commending the University for its decision to permit activist Jenn Smith to give a public lecture at UBC’s Vancouver campus on Sunday, June 23, 2019.  However, UBC insisted on charging the organizer a “security fee.” The Justice Centre has warned UBC to refrain from charging “security fees” at University-sanctioned events, a censorship tactic becoming increasingly common at Canada’s public universities.

In early June 2019, a grassroots organization called Canadian Christian Lobby (CCL) submitted a request to UBC to book a room for a lecture by Jenn Smith titled “Erosion of Freedom” and subsequent question and answer period.  Mr. Smith is a local transgender person who regularly speaks publicly on issues regarding transgenderism, individual freedoms and women’s rights.
UBC approved the booking request but required CCL to pay a $500 “security fee” in addition to paying the room rental and other fees.  No reason was provided for the security fee.  CCL paid the fees, including the security fee, and the event was scheduled for June 23.

On June 19, four days before the event, UBC demanded an additional $750 security fee to be paid in less than 24 hours as a condition of the event proceeding.  UBC made vague allusions to safety as the reason for the sudden and last-minute imposition of an additional security fee.  Not desiring the event to be cancelled, CCL reluctantly paid to UBC the additional $750.

The event proceeded on the evening of June 23.  Unfortunately, three disruptive protestors, one of them wearing a face mask, found their way into the room in which the event was taking place. As Mr. Smith was beginning his lecture, the three disruptive protestors moved to the front of the room, sat down facing the audience and began to chant loudly, preventing the approximately 75 attendees from listening to Mr. Smith’s presentation.  About this time, the fire alarm was activated by an unidentified individual.

Thankfully, UBC campus security responded appropriately by inviting police officers present to escort the disruptive protesters out of the room, and by permitting the event attendees to re-enter the room after taking a short period of time to deactivate the fire alarm and ensure no fire was present in the building.  The event continued without any further disruption.

In its letter, sent on June 28, the Justice Centre commends UBC “for upholding freedom of expression on its campus by acting appropriately to ensure the removal of the disruptive individuals attempting to prevent the event attendees from listening to Mr. Smith, and by ensuring the Event resumed in a timely manner following the activation of the fire alarm.”

“It is an immeasurable benefit to students and the general public alike when controversial issues are permitted to be addressed in the marketplace of ideas,” explains the Justice Centre’s letter.

In this regard, UBC acted in accordance with its position that “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.”

However, the imposition of the security fee served as a strong disincentive onto the event organizers in an attempt to indirectly effect the cancellation of the event and thereby absolve UBC of being required to act to uphold the freedom to express “controversial” views on campus.

The $1,250 security fee risks a “hecklers veto”—the power of obstructive and lawless individuals and groups to stifle dialogue and the exchange of ideas they disapprove of.  The likelihood of “protests” and unsupported fears about “safety” do not justify penalizing peaceful speakers by imposing security fees.

The Justice Centre is pleased to commend UBC for allowing this event to proceed, but it’s far from a perfect score. Security fees must be challenged before we price free expression out of existence for thousands of Canadian students who can barely afford tuition.