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Members of the newborn UBC Free Speech Club battle “political correctness” on campus

Some on campus are concerned the group could lead to the spread of extreme positions

By Flavia Santia , in Feature story , on November 23, 2016 Tags:

A group of University of B.C. students claiming that political correctness has gone too far has formed a free-speech club in the wake of the U.S. election of Donald Trump as president.

But some on campus are concerned that the group, which kicked off its club with members wearing the hat that Trump made famous during his campaign with “Make America Great Again” on it, could lead to the spread of extreme positions.

The group members, who say they encouraged people to wear the Trump hats just to provoke debate, argue they aren’t promoting any particular political opinion. They’re just trying to provide a space for unpopular views.

“Opinions supporting Trump were a heavily oppressed and marginalized viewpoint on campus. In our club, some members are in favour of Trump and some strongly oppose him, but the important thing is to still have open debates. I mean if Clinton was the one to be marginalized, we would be there wearing the Clinton hat,” said Luka Ostojic, a group administrator.

Hate-speech is a concern when it comes to free speech

Rima Wilkes, a professor in the UBC department of sociology, said her concern is that a free-speech club, while a good idea in theory, needs to take care that it doesn’t become a place that encourages hate speech. Wilkes said sometimes people push their opinions in an aggressive way, not considering the groups affected by such claims.

“The danger is that people don’t always understand that often minority communities are afraid. They’re not always taking that fear seriously. On the other side, I guess I would say it would be nice if people could have opinions without just being labelled as racists all the time.”

Birth of Free Speech Club

The idea of a free-speech club started with Louis Jung, a student who moved to Vancouver from Korea in September to attend a program at UBC. The club now has more than 130 members.

Louis Jung, founder of the UBC Free Speech Club, stands in front of the club advertising.

“In the beginning, it was just me,” said Jung. “I was still in Korea and I was afraid that, once I got to Vancouver, I wouldn’t be able to freely say my opinion without being considered politically incorrect or offensive. I took the petition form from the AMS on campus and I started to collect signatures.”

Cooper Asp, the second member of the club, argued that  people who have convictions conflicting with the socially acceptable vision feel almost obliged to repress them, so as not to risk to be badly labelled.

“The feelings are there, the culture is there, but if there’s no discussion, the people who feel differently go underground and run the risk of being seen as subversive.”

Circulating different ideas helps to build firm opinions 

Through the future events they’ll be hosting, the members of the Free Speech Club hope to give students a chance to be exposed to both the sides of a story, in order to bring ideas that are suppressed to the public and have an open discussion about them.

The aim is to provide a space where everyone can feel free to share their ideas and have constructive debates with those who think differently.

A professor who specializes in social movements said that kind of airing of ideas from very difficult viewpoints is helpful.

“It is difficult to argue against positions you are opposed to if you do not really understand them. Also, to some extent, people who want to change the world need to talk with people they disagree with,” said David Tindall.

“So, for both of these reasons, I would say it is generally good to promote a diversity of views on campus.”

However, he had one warning.

“I suppose boundaries need to be drawn somewhere when people take positions that might be harmful. But I think we should be cautious about drawing those boundaries too narrowly.”

Starting in January, a number of meetings will be organized for both the members of the club and other students. Every week, different topics will be addressed and at the end of each meeting there will be a question-and-answer session.