British Columbia

'Free speech' or 'hate speech?' B.C. district advised not to pull anti-SOGI talk despite protests

A controversial anti-SOGI talk in Oak Bay is raising questions about freedom of speech, after council looked into blocking it but found there’s no legal basis to do so.

Oak Bay mayor says council plans to review booking policies for public spaces for future events

Jenn Smith, who identifies as a transgender man, is hosting a talk about B.C.'s sexual orientation and gender identity curriculum on Thursday. (Jenn Smith)

A planned anti-SOGI talk in Oak Bay, B.C., is raising questions about freedom of speech after council looked into blocking it but found there's no legal basis to do so.

The event, scheduled to go ahead on Thursday evening at a meeting space at Windsor Pavilion, criticizes the sexual orientation and gender identity curriculum (SOGI) taught in B.C. schools.

The talk is titled "The erosion of freedom: How transgender politics in school and society is undermining our freedom and harming women and children," and some in the community have described it as transphobic.

"We saw a lot of concern raised especially on social media and then through an email campaign that this is hate speech and it's being held in a public venue," said Oak Bay Mayor Kevin Murdoch.

Council sought legal help about the possibility of blocking the event but were advised against it.

"The lawyers' pretty strong opinion was that it did not constitute hate speech," Murdoch told CBC's All Points West.

"We would not be in good standing if we shut it down …  but that does not mean people wouldn't find this topic, or the talk, hateful and hurtful."

Concerns about free speech

For Jenn Smith, the speaker at Thursday's talk, the unsuccessful attempts to shut down the conversation are an attack on free speech. He denied claims that the event is hateful or promotes intolerance.

"What we have going on here is an elite group who are making false charges against somebody who is saying things that they don't want the public to hear," Smith said.

"All of society should be concerned …  this is creating a chilling effect on free speech."

Smith, who identifies as a transgender identified man, has been vocal in his criticism of SOGI and has staged numerous protests and events across the province.

His latest talk comes at the end of a series of discussions held across Vancouver Island this past week.

"Even though I don't promote hatred, people aren't going to go to this event because they've now been led to believe that it is hatred," Smith said.

"That is very bad in terms of being able to discuss things openly and honestly."

Reviewing policies

The District of Oak Bay now plans to review booking policies for future public events.

"We don't collect a lot of details about what's inside the presentations being given," said Murdoch.

"That's the next step for us as a council, to look at our booking policy and make it a bit more clear in terms of what's allowed and what's not allowed inside of our public venues."

The district is hosting a LGBT safe space event on Thursday evening, to coincide with the talk, and a pro-SOGI counter protest is also planned for a nearby park. 

With files from All Points West and Liz McArthur