University of British Columbia sued for canceling talk by U.S. journalist

The University of British Columbia (UBC) faces legal action for canceling a speaking event featuring right-wing U.S. media personality Andy Ngo. In December 2019, UBC canceled the event, scheduled for Jan. 29, 2020, over safety concerns, following repeated threats of violence from far-left protest groups. On January 13, 2020, the UBC Free Speech Club filed a lawsuit against the university over the cancellation. 

Key Players

Andy Ngo is editor-at-large of The Post Millennial, a conservative Canadian news site. A native and resident of Portland, Oregon, he is best known for covering a clash that erupted there in June 2019, when anti-fascist (Antifa) protesters disrupted a march held by the Proud Boys, a far-right group. Video shows Ngo being attacked at the Antifa counter-rally to the Proud Boys event. Outside of this incident, however, Ngo “has been reported by various outlets to stretch facts, collaborate with far-right groups and provoke protesters in order to support the narrative that Antifa is organized, violent and dangerous,” according to The Ubessey, the university’s student-run newspaper. 

Angelo Isidorou, executive director of the UBC Free Speech Club, a student group, was responsible for booking Ngo. Isidorou said that, although he was unaware of any threats made toward the university, the Free Speech Club had received numerous threats from anonymous online accounts; The Post Millennial claims the threats came from Antifa, but such charges have not been substantiated. 

Further Details

In November 2019, the university approved a signed contract between Ngo and the Free Speech Club to hold the speaking event on January, 29, 2020, according to Global News. The Free Speech Club then paid a deposit to book a venue at UBC’s Robson Square, in downtown Vancouver. Shortly before Christmas, Isidorou received a call from Ron Holton, UBC’s chief safety officer, informing him that the event had been canceled. Holton never mentioned a specific concern, according to the conservative legal action group Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms (JCCF), which, on December 29, sent a letter to the university on the Free Speech Club’s behalf threatening legal action if the event was not reinstated by Jan. 10, 2020. 

“They just said, ‘That’s that. We don’t know how to handle these protests,” Isidorou told Global News. “‘…and our hope is that by cancelling these controversial events, things will simmer down with these groups and they won’t do it anymore.’ And our reaction to that was negative.” The university is here referring to the unsubstantiated claims from Ngo and his supporters that Antifa would be protesting the event. Regardless of the alleged threats, Isidorou maintains that UBC had no right to block Ngo from speaking at its campus, according to Global News.

On Jan. 8, the university announced, in a letter written by university counsel Hubert Lai to JCCF lawyer Marty Moore, its decision not to reinstate Ngo’s speaking engagement. The missive cited several instances of physical violence in past on-campus events, according to The Ubyssey. Ngo had been slated to speak about what he alleges to be the spread of U.S. left-wing extremism and violence throughout Canada.

UBC had conducted a risk assessment in line with typical protocol, Global News reports, but only after the deposit for the venue was paid. Even so, Isidorou, who claims to have presided over several events at which security was present, said that no protective measures were discussed. 

“I’m always ready for that call where UBC says, ‘We need to bring in guards because it’s going to be dangerous, so we invoice you X amount,’” Isidorou told Global News. In this case, having received anonymous threats, the university cancelled the event outright, seeing the risk as “too high” and the event itself as “too controversial.” In his letter to the JCCF, Lai noted that Ngo “has been a target of violence in the past,” and that UBC’s assessment found “the risk to persons and property [to be] too high.”


JCCF and Free Speech Club take legal action against UBC

Days after the January 10 reinstatement deadline, the JCCF announced that it was suing UBC for refusing to host Andy Ngo. The JCCF accused UBC of refusing to “defend freedom of expression,” which is constitutionally protected under Canada’s Charter of Human Rights. The group also claimed the cancellation served only to “appease the violent group Antifa.”