Earlier this month, in an ironic but somehow all too predictable turn of events, Ryerson University announced that it would be cancelling its event called "The Stifling of Free Speech on University Campuses."

The event was to be held last Tuesday and panel members included Jordan Peterson, the University of Toronto professor who opposes Bill C-16's mandate for gender-neutral pronouns, Gad Saad, an evolutionary behavioural scientist at Concordia University, Oren Amitay, a clinical psychologist and Ryerson University sessional lecturer and Faith Goldy, formerly of Canada's Rebel Media.

Ryerson cited safety concerns as the reason for shutting the event down, saying in a statement that "Ryerson is not equipped to provide the necessary level of public safety for the event to go forward." Safety concerns have obviously been heightened in the wake of the events in Charlottesville earlier this month, when a car allegedly driven by 20-year-old James Alex Fields Jr. ran into a crowd of counter-protesters at a white nationalist rally, killing one.

Safety or pressure?

But the "safety" concern is a dubious one, considering that Sarina Singh, organizer of the Ryerson event and an alum of the university, said in an email that far-left groups including No Fascist T.O. had been harassing Ryerson's administration to cancel the event, calling the panel speakers "Nazis." Once the event had officially been cancelled, the group's "anti-fascism" rally turned into a celebration on Ryerson's campus.

Even if safety was and is a real concern, a university should make it its mission to ensure that sufficient security personnel are on hand to make sure controversial events can proceed as scheduled. What are academic institutions for, after all, if not to challenge minds and host rigorous debates on contentious issues?

The risk in all of this, for the left especially, is in polarizing once-allies who might abhor the views espoused by controversial speakers, but still value the right to free speech and appreciate the role of the university as a venue for debate.

Those promulgating censorship, however, argue that it is in the best interest of marginalized and targeted groups to shut down these speakers, based on the notion it will protect them from further oppression and harm.

But a solid perspective doesn't need to be insulated from criticism in order to stand. And contrary to what these groups would have you believe, many of the folks advocating for free speech are not racist, sexist, alt-right zealots, but often people who are left-leaning and questioning the cause. Take, for example, the plea by CNN host Fareed Zakaria — who is generally viewed as a liberal — to so-called progressive university students, urging them to listen to opposing points of view instead of silencing them.  

Many "progressives" on the left often call anyone who criticizes it "far-right" and "fascist," including those who, by many people's standards, would be considered liberally minded. For example, Peterson, a self-described classic British liberal who has explicitly spoken out against fascism and Nazism, has been erroneously labelled as "far-right." Classic liberalism upholds values like freedom of speech and the free exchange of ideas, but because these ideals are often dismissed by the reactionary left for the sake of "safe spaces," individuals defending them are cast as the enemy.   

Jordan Peterson

Dictating what is and isn't acceptable speech sends a very clear message regarding who among us has the authority to hold an opinion. (YouTube)

This conflation of defenders of free speech with ideological extremists only fuels frustration among moderates, forcing unnecessary polarization. Indeed, it just ends up alienating many on the left who aren't on board with this agenda, because those of us with liberal values just can't take it seriously anymore.

Take, for instance, how things have unfolded since Ryerson's event was cancelled. After reaching out on social media to Christeen Thornton, one of the organizers behind No Fascist T.O.'s rally, Amitay (who, full disclosure, is a colleague) found himself accused, without evidence, of doxxing her. When faced with screenshots demonstrating no wrongdoing on his part and that he had contacted her in good faith, Thornton accused him of altering the images with Photoshop.

The event has since been rescheduled for November, to be held in a venue off-campus. Thornton has posted on social media about plans to shut down that event, too, writing, "Last time we shut them up in less than 12 hours," which suggests that it was never about creating a "safe space" on Ryerson's campus, but rather, muzzling anyone who dares to disagree.

Yet there was nothing harmful or hateful about this event — it was merely an opportunity to encourage the exchange of different ideas and dialogue without fear of negative repercussions.

Dictating what is and isn't acceptable speech sends a very clear message regarding who among us has the authority to hold an opinion. As groupthink continues to pervade, we must hold institutions—and individuals—accountable when they capitulate to these threats.

Narrowing the window of acceptable speech only widens the political divide. Those of us in favour of true liberty will continue to abandon the far-left; we have no choice but to.

This column is part of CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.