30 years ago, free speech advocates were more willing to tolerate far-right voices than oppose them. It’s now happening again.
In February 1986, the Ottawa Citizen, published in Canada’s federal capital, ran an opinion piece by its publisher Paddy Sherman titled “The ban-happy folks at Mindless U.” Sherman was furious that Canadian student protestors were trying to shut down the ambassador of South Africa’s Apartheid government from speaking on their campuses, rather than welcoming an opportunity for a “clash of ideas” that would certainly “demolish” the ambassador. In disbelief “that critics would want to prevent a debate on freedom of expression in South Africa,” he lamented that the topic of apartheid had “a tendency to turn campuses into assembly-line branches of Mindless U.”
Throughout the fall of 1985 into the spring of 1986 a full-blown moral panic over “free speech on campus” gripped the attention of Canadian media. At the center of this controversy was the South African ambassador Glenn Babb, who arrived in August and immediately undertook a full schedule of speaking engagements at universities and community clubs across the country, as well as media appearances, in which he argued that recently adopted sanctions against South Africa would only destroy the country and lead to violent revolution. The increased public activity of the Embassy took the anti-apartheid movement by surprise — Babb quickly achieved a notoriety bordering on celebrity status, and proved adept at using the platforms given to him to spread his pro-apartheid arguments.
Responding to what anti-apartheid activists deemed the “Babb offensive,” the movement sought to counter his message by protesting his appearances, withdrawing his invitations to speak, and disrupting his speeches — a strategy that is sometimes referred to as “no-platforming” or “deplatforming.” At the University of Toronto, Babb was shouted down by students, and faculty filed an injunction in an attempt to bar Babb from returning campus. At Carleton University in Ottawa, a student group was stripped of its club status for inviting Babb to speak. These incidents caused an uproar among newspaper columnists and others who insisted that Babb was being censored, and that these infringements on his freedom of speech made them no better than apartheid South Africa.
If this seems familiar, it is because the clamor over “free speech on campus” has once again achieved the status of a moral panic. Since Donald Trump’s election in the US, there have been renewed attempts by students to “no-platform” far-right speakers and prevent them from organizing on campus and in their communities, leading many liberal and conservative commentators to refer to the present moment as a “crisis” of free speech. In Canada, the Conservative Party has picked up on this sentiment by promising to block federal funding to universities if they do not adequately protect free speech.
Most recently, Faith Goldy, an alt-right media personality, was going to lecture on “Ethnocide: Multiculturalism and European Canadian Identity” at Wilfrid Laurier University. Goldy was met with demonstrations, and her lecture was ultimately disrupted when someone pulled a fire alarm. If Goldy’s name rings a bell, it’s because she was recently fired from The Rebel — Canada’s Breitbart — for appearing on a neo-Nazi podcast, and has been peddling a narrative of “white genocide” in South Africa, which has gained traction not just among right-wingers on the Internet, but even Australian government ministers. The disruption of Goldy’s lecture led to a frenzy of pundits handwringing over supposed threats to free speech, declaring that even awful people should be welcomed on campus to participate in a marketplace of ideas.
The experience of the anti-apartheid movement shows, however, that far from encountering a crisis of free speech, we are simply repeating the exact same debates from 30 years ago. (The resurgence of the right electorally in Western Europe and North America makes it feel like we’re going back another 40 years.) In the fight against apartheid in the 1980s, no-platforming was the right move — and it didn’t bring down civilization, either. It also demonstrates that then, as now, so-called free speech advocates were far more willing to tolerate and even enable racist, far-right voices than they were to oppose them.
Shutting down Babb’s propaganda tour
To counter Ambassador Babb’s pro-apartheid propaganda tour, the Canadian anti-apartheid movement implemented a strategy of confronting him everywhere he spoke: from organizing protests outside of his speeches to Rotary Clubs or campus groups, to picketing the CBC radio studies in Toronto when he participated in an on-air debate.
When Babb was invited to speak on a panel on censorship at the Centre for Investigative Journalism convention in Vancouver, the convention was boycotted by the BC Federation of Labour, a dozen speakers, and nearly half of the event’s own organizing committee. The Ottawa Citizen’s Don McGillivray defended Babb’s right to speak, arguing that the protestors would “increase Babb’s audience” and that “if we make it impossible for South African diplomats to speak in public in Canada, we’re saying, in effect, that the South Africans are right to restrict free speech in their country.” On the other hand, the Vancouver Sun’s Terry Glavin was embarrassed by the actions of other journalists, and denounced the decision to “allow, into our midst, the representative of a government which kills reporters,” and for giving him “a platform to air his views.”
A similar approach was taken by the African National Congress (ANC), which dominated liberation politics back in South Africa and which had a Canadian mission based in Toronto. Noticing the series of speaking engagements that Babb had arranged at Ontario universities, Yusuf Salojee, the ANC’s Chief Representative in Canada, offered an internal policy framework for how to respond, which aimed to take away Babb’s platform. The ANC would refuse to share a platform with Babb, and discouraged others from debating him, “no matter how well-meaning their intentions.” Instead, the ANC would ask student groups to withdraw their invitations to Babb, and should the event go ahead, it “should be disrupted” or met with “massive demonstrations.” This local “no-platforming” strategy was approved by the ANC headquarters in Lusaka.
University of Toronto
By and large, the efforts to shut down Babb’s propaganda tour were led by students on university campuses. The first major flashpoint took place at the University of Toronto’s Hart House in November 1985, during a debate over disinvestment from South Africa, when high school teacher and debater Lennox Farrell angrily threw a ceremonial mace at Babb (he was charged with assault but later acquitted), and a crowd of students chanted “Freedom Yes, Apartheid No” until the debate was cut short. The disruption was condemned by the university president for violating Babb’s “right to free speech,” as well as by the Globe and Mail’s editorial board, who wrote: “The point is belabored in the making – that Ambassador Babb has every right to be here, indeed a responsibility to debate, to dispute, to engage. Often such meetings are not allowed in South Africa. This is not South Africa.”
Babb was re-invited to campus by both the university’s Governing Council and the International Law Society, who arranged for a January debate with law professor Irwin Cotler. In response, four U of T professors petitioned the Ontario supreme court for an injunction to ban Babb from campus, arguing that freedom of speech has limits and that “academic freedom does not include the promotion of criminal acts” like apartheid. Although this legal attempt failed, the Law Society agreed to withdraw their invitation to Babb, conceding that he would be an “inappropriate participant” for a discussion of international law.
The reaction to these events was overwhelming, with a flurry of op-eds and letters published in major national newspapers and magazines. Once again the Globe and Mail, the country’s most influential newspaper, came to Babb’s defense, with an editorial titled “Don’t ban Mr. Babb;” it argued that “if there is one place where abhorrent ideas and heated issues should find a forum for debate, it is the university campus.” The Globe and Mail also published a 1000-word piece which claimed that freedom of speech was under attack, and that “the very foundation of our democratic society… is being assaulted.” In the Toronto Star, U of T professor Crawford Pratt denounced the disruption of Babb and the attempted injunction as “entirely wrongheaded and reprehensible,” but argued that the invitation was itself “a serious misjudgment” and praised the Law Society’s decision to withdraw it. Even Stephen Lewis, Canada’s ambassador to the UN (and left-wing critic of apartheid) spoke out against the attempt to ban Babb: “In a free and democratic society one doesn’t deny people the right to speak.”
Furious at the Law Society’s decision to withdraw the invitation, two law students — Tony Clement and Alan Riddell — broke away to form a new law society with the explicit purpose of re-inviting Babb on free speech grounds. Although they insisted that apartheid was “reprehensible,” they argued that “to criticize South Africa for suppressing freedom of speech without protecting Mr. Babb’s freedom of speech in Canada would be ‘hypocritical.” (Clement went on to become a federal minister in Harper’s Conservative government, and is currently a Member of Parliament).
When Babb finally spoke at the U of T at the end of January, he wore a bullet-proof vest. Outside, the 300 students protesting his presence were met with mounted police. Inside the hall, a dozen students found a creative way to protest (they had been threatened with expulsion if they disrupted the talk) — they satirically donned Ku Klux Klan outfits and cheered whenever Babb rose to speak.
Under equally controversial circumstances, Babb was invited to participate in a debate at Carleton University by the student journalism society, which was scheduled for late March 1986. The club’s Vice President Rob McKenzie admitted that the decision to invite the ambassador was inspired by the disruption at the U of T, and that Babb “should have a chance to announce his views.” The Carleton Anti-Apartheid Action Group (CAAAG) expressed shock at the decision to give Babb a platform at the university — especially in the context of recent incidents of anti-black racism on campus — and asked the society to withdraw their invitation. Despite going out of its way to give a forum to the ambassador, the society insisted that it “doesn’t support apartheid… Students just want to listen to a debate on feelings about freedom of expression in South Africa.”
In a bold move, the Carleton University Students’ Association (CUSA) responded by decertifying the journalism society, on the grounds that by inviting Babb the society had violated an anti-apartheid policy adopted by CUSA Council the previous year. The society thus lost its funding, and was barred from hosting events on campus, including the Babb debate.
Once again, the reaction to banning Babb from campus was sharply critical. The publisher of the Ottawa Citizen called the student protestors “mindless,” and instead claimed that those students who invited Babb “deserve a medal for intelligence.” The Charlatan, Carleton’s student newspaper, also took a position against the decertification (the editor called CUSA’s decision “arbitrary, totalitarian, ill-considered, and thoroughly irresponsible”), but was also critical of the journalism society for extending Babb “an advantage, a favor,” and a platform not available to ordinary individuals. Over the next weeks, both the Ottawa Citizen and the Charlatan devoted significant space to fierce debate on the issue, with most letters expressing disgust — claims that CUSA was forbidding debate, preferring ignorance, practicing censorship. Journalism student David Scanlan even suggested that pro-apartheid views were being “suppressed,” adding: “I would like to hear someone defend apartheid; it would be very educational.” (Scanlan is now the managing editor of Bloomberg News for Canada).
Anti-apartheid activists, however, supported CUSA’s decision, and tried to reframe the debate — this was not about free speech, they insisted, but about judgment and responsibility. As CAAAG pointed out, “When Mr. Babb is given a platform he does not appear as an ordinary citizen in an individual capacity. He is an integral part of the system of apartheid and his job is to defend the racist policies of his government.” The Ottawa and District Labor Council expressed the same concern, stating that the “issue at Carleton is not freedom of speech, but whether the prestige of a university forum should be offered to a defender of a murderous, racist regime.” Letters to the editor also questioned the educational value of listening to a “trained propagandist,” and pointed out that the invitation to the ambassador was “undercutting” the efforts of the international anti-apartheid movement to isolate the regime.
In the end, the Carleton School of Journalism stepped in and officially recognized the society, allowing the debate to go ahead in April 1986 —although it was moved off-campus to the National Press Club, after the Embassy complained of security concerns. The CAAAG organized a demonstration “oppose Babb’s visit and his message,” bringing in students from the U of T, Queen’s, and McGill.
Opposing the Far-Right
The fact that we are repeating the very same debate today proves that opposing or disrupting the South African ambassador from speaking did not bring about an end to free speech, or otherwise endanger our freedoms. It also demonstrates that anti-apartheid activists were almost certainly on the right side of the argument.
It may be true, as free speech advocates had warned, that protests and disruptions gave Babb more attention than he otherwise would have received. However, any publicity that protests might have granted Babb was far eclipsed by that granted to Babb by those who freely provided him with a platform, whether by means of prestigious university debates, national radio, or his flashy opinion piece in Peter Worthington’s Influence magazine. If anything, protests politicized the act of giving him a platform — no longer could such a forum be considered “neutral” — and it fueled sustained opposition to apartheid across the country.
More importantly, those who criticized no-platforming as censorship completely overlooked the context of power. For Babb’s disrupted speeches occurred in the midst of his major propaganda campaign, as he utilized print and broadcast media as well as speaking engagements in order to further his anti-sanctions agenda. During this time the South African government was channeling tremendous resources into a global propaganda war, and in Canada this included covert operations, the creation of front groups, the heavy distribution of misinformation, and even recruiting spies to infiltrate the anti-apartheid movement. The Embassy had been maintaining close relations with both business and political elites as well as fringe white supremacist groups. To suggest that disrupting Babb was a violation of his right to speak — in this context — is simply ludicrous. Simply by hosting him, university groups were facilitating Babb’s intended publicity strategy.
As Davide Mastracci has effectively argued, this is the difference between disliking and actually opposing the far-right: “A lot of people who believe they oppose the far-right only do so in theory. In reality, they actually just dislike them, and tolerate them in practice.” In this case, free speech advocates vehemently disagreed with apartheid in theory, but they did not oppose it. Instead, they related to apartheid as an intellectual problem, as something to be critiqued through the performance of debate, while not just tolerating but actively facilitating the ability of pro-apartheid forces to organize by extending Babb a platform. The material effect of their interventions was to provide the advocates of apartheid with the objective conditions needed to further their agenda. This is not the kind of legacy that we should replicate again today.