Free Places, Not Safe Spaces.

An Open Letter to Western University’s Freedom of Expression Policy Committee

A guest authored edgy essay by Doug Mann

APP Editors’ Note:

Impelled by an Ontario government mandate to produce a freedom of expression policy, the administration at Western University, aka University of Western Ontario, aka UWO, has created an Ad Hoc committee to create such a policy.

From October 2 to 5 they held consultative sessions with members of the campus community.

Doug Mann wrote this open letter the week before, emailing it to the committee.

Mann’s letter is directed to the administration at Western, but his argument smoothly generalizes to the contemporary professional academy anywhere, including, of course, and even especially, departments of philosophy.

You can find out more about Mann’s work, HERE.


Freedom of expression has become a leading issue on campuses in North America, Western Europe and Australia over the last five years.

The central dialectic here is a struggle between two loosely affiliated groups. On the one hand, there are identity politics liberals, often of an authoritarian cast, who dominate the ranks of administrators and senior faculty in many, if not most, arts and social science departments in colleges and universities, along with state media such as the CBC and the management of tech corporations such as Google and Apple (among others). This group argues that we need a new toolkit of ideological and bureaucratic techniques to deal with imagined threats to the well being of students and faculty members — safe spaces, micro-aggression theory, campus speech codes, and the banning of external speakers who might offend segments of the local population. Many of these were trained in faculties of education, in women’s or gender studies programs, or in more traditional social sciences like sociology that are currently dominated by identitarian explanations of inequality and oppression. I’ll refer to them as AIP liberals.[i]

On the other side we have a loose collection of classical liberals, traditional conservatives, libertarians, anarchists and sceptical social democrats who argue that restrictions on the freedom of speech are dangerous moves down the road to an Orwellian dystopia, along with being a direct violation of the mission of the university — to explore controversial ideas, to debate key political and philosophical issues, and to base the validity of all hypotheses on sound research, and thus empirical facts. This group of free speech contrarians has little power within universities or broadcast media, but has a large voice in podcasting and on YouTube, and is able to write and sell millions of books that are widely discussed in the mass media.[ii]

I’ll argue that this latter group is entirely correct, for ethical, political and practical reasons. The only restrictions on freedom of speech on campus should be on those who advocate direct physical harm of a group of people, or on those who make it impossible for a group of people to function as students or professors. Hurt feelings and differences of opinion should not count as good reasons to silence speech. There should be no restrictions framed in terms of ideological difference, and no Lindsay Shepherds being grilled by campus thought police.

First, let’s look at the practical reasons. Since 2015 there have been many cases of coercion and violence perpetrated by AIP liberal students, often egged on by professors, trying to restrict speech and attack their ideological enemies. Some cases in point:

  • At the University of Missouri campus protests started in 2015 to do with a variety of issues, mainly those based on race. Professor Melissa Click was caught on camera threatening student journalist Tim Tai with “muscle” if he didn’t stop filming one protest, the video of which became an internet meme.
  • At UC Berkeley on February 1, 2017, violence broke out when gay conservative provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos was scheduled to speak. Led by ANTIFA, protestors smashed windows, turned over cars and lit them on fire, threw rocks at the police, and physically assaulted members of the crowd. The talk was cancelled by the police.[iii] This bad habit of using coercion to de-platform controversial outside speakers has been repeated dozens of times throughout the Western world, inexplicably in the case of moderates like “factual feminist” Christina Hoff Sommers, who described in a podcast how some Brown University students retreated to safe room containing puppy videos, stuffed animals, bubbles and colouring books to avoid listening to her dangerous ideas. There’s something deeper going on in such cases than simple political disagreements, something pathological.[iv]
  • At Middlebury College in March 2017, conservative scientist Dr. Charles Murray’s speech was shut down by protestors, who turned their backs on him and chanted “hey hey ho ho, Charles Murray has got to go”. They forced Murray and liberal professor Allison Stanger off the stage (she was going to critique Murray), later jumping on their car, and grabbing Stanger’s hair, sending her to the hospital for a neck brace. This attempt by violent mobs chanting mindless slogans to shut down freedom of speech has been repeated time and time again on American campuses over the last two years, illustrating a pathological reluctance by AIP extremists to engage in anything like intellectual debate.[v]
  • Even Yale experienced this sort of coercion when in 2015 students protested against Halloween costumes they thought were using offensive cultural stereotypes, accusing Yale officials of failing to provide them with a safe and secure “home.” When professor Erika Christakis emailed some students to ask, “is there no room anymore for a child or young person to be a little bit obnoxious?” she was met with anger and obscenities.[vi] The Yale protests show how, starting around 2013, students underwent a radical paradigm shift in thinking about freedom of speech, preferring an illusion of safety and good feelings to vigorous debate. In a bizarre move (totally repudiating the values of the campus radicals of the sixties and seventies), in December 2015 a group of Yale students agreed to sign a petition to repeal the first amendment, using their free speech to stifle freedom of speech.[vii]
  • Evergreen State College faced an epic breakdown in public order and campus safety in May 2017, when a group of students concerned with racial justice, triggered by a supposedly private email by Professor Brett Weinstein criticizing a “Day of Absence” where white students and professors would be banned from campus, kidnapped college president George Bridges, harassed others they saw as racist, and made a series of radical “social justice” demands. Groups of students patrolled the campus looking for their ideological enemies, and threatened a group of professors including Weinstein with physical harm, demanding their removal (“Hey ho, hey ho, these racist professors have got to go”). Since then Weinstein and his fellow professor and wife Heather Heying, who once upon a time styled themselves as “progressives,” were given million-dollar settlements and left campus to become public intellectuals. Evergreen has since become a metaphor for social justice politics run amok.[viii]
  • Wilfrid Laurier University suffered a major scandal in November 2017 when Communications graduate student Lindsay Shepherd recorded a disciplinary meeting presided over by professors Nathan Rambukkana and Herbert Pimlott, along with “gendered violence” bureaucrat Adria Joel, leaking it to the press and YouTube. In the 42-minute meeting Rambukkana and Pimlott engage in a rambling, sometimes incoherent critique of Shepherd for showing her communications class a video of a TVO program featuring Jordan Peterson’s critique of federal Bill C-16, claiming that anonymous student complaints (which the Laurier president later admitted were fictional) argued that Shepherd was threatening their mental and physical well being. The professors show a child-like understanding of political theory by comparing Peterson to Milo and Hitler, and use postmodernese buzzwords like “positionality” and “problematic” to defend odious speech restrictions.[ix]
  • The result was hundreds of blogs, newspaper articles, and YouTube videos, the great majority of them openly ridiculing Laurier faculty as a Keystone Cops version of Orwell’s thought police. Most Americans know of Laurier’s existence only thanks to Lindsay Shepherd, hardly good publicity. Ironically, the terrible trio could be argued to be implementing a quite sane reading of Laurier’s Gendered and Sexual Violence policy, which (among other things) outlaws acts that “reinforce gender inequalities resulting in physical, sexual, emotional, economic or mental harm.”[x] The problem here is that “emotional” and “mental” harm are purely subjective experiences that can’t be validated by empirical facts — they are perilously close to Orwell’s “facecrime,” i.e. having a facial expression the Party objects to. Thoughtless language like this in campus speech and behaviour codes has totalitarian implications. We see this at UWO when the university outlaws speech that “demeans” others, despite the fact that being “demeaned” could include a student getting a low mark on an essay, or two professors who have a vigorous disagreement in a committee meeting.

In most of these cases, AIP liberals have created a moral panic around a given set of what they take to be dangerous ideas, associating these (often falsely) with a given visiting speaker or professor.[xi] The usual strategy is to accuse a professor or speaker of one of the four deadly sins of AIP liberalism — of being racist, sexist/misogynist, homophobic, or transphobic (without bothering to read their articles or books, or to listen carefully to their lectures) — and then wait for the social media outrage to build up to the usual protests. All too often, these moral panics are the product of intellectual laziness and dishonesty; in some, of schizophrenic mass delusion. They are hostile to freedom of thought and expression.[xii]

The results of such events were two-fold: first, the institution in question lost varying degrees of moral and political credibility, often becoming general objects of satire online. This loss of credibility has been disastrous in some cases.[xiii]

Second, these institutions have lost, collectively, thousands of new students and thus millions of dollars from their operating budgets. Two years after the first protests, Mizzou freshmen enrolment had dropped 35%. The university closed seven student dorms and cut 400 jobs as of 2017.[xiv] Evergreen’s enrolment is down about 20% this year, 25% over two years, leading to $6 million in budget cuts and to 42 layoffs of staff and contract faculty.[xv] Laurier’s first-year enrolment for the fall of 2018 was down 15.2%, despite the fact that overall enrolment in Ontario schools was up 0.3%. No other full-fledged Ontario university suffered such a loss — my alma mater, the University of Waterloo, just down the street from Laurier, experienced an enrolment increase of 5%.[xvi]

So restricting freedom of speech has cost universities millions of dollars.

This decline in rational discourse has also affected the standards of journalism, as seen in the abysmal interview of Jordan Peterson by Channel 4’s Cathy Newman, or the hiring of the openly racist man-hater Sarah Jeong by the New York Times.[xvii] In such cases, journalists believe that adherence to the precepts of their ideological tribe are more important that abstract notions of truth and fairness, lessons they no doubt learned at least in part from the post-millennial university.

Next, there are political reasons for opposing restrictions on freedom of speech. When we seek to restrict speech or thought, we must ask three questions:

  • How do we define offensive speech? If such a policy is to be implemented, this definition must be crystal clear, or it will wind up becoming a club used by self-interested parties in partisan debates.
  • Who will administer these restrictions?
  • Who watches the watchmen?

So we are immediately faced with problems of definition and administration. As for the former, the usual answer is, “Well, we’ll just restrict hate speech. Job done!,” followed by high-fives and hand shaking.

But what is hate speech? There are almost as many definitions of it as there are commentators on the issue. In the infamous 1990 Keegstra case, Chief Justice Dickson defined hate speech as:

…predicated on destruction, and hatred against identifiable groups therefore thrives on insensitivity, bigotry and destruction of both the target group and of the values of our society. Hatred in this sense is a most extreme emotion that belies reason; an emotion that, if exercised against members of an identifiable group, implies that those individuals are to be despised, scorned, denied respect and made subject to ill-treatment on the basis of group affiliation.

Yet how exactly we apply this reasonable definition to other cases is a real problem. Prosecutions of hate crimes under section 319 of the Criminal Code of Canada are rare (the Keegstra case was an exception).[xviii] Wikipedia defines hate speech as:

…speech that attacks a person or group on the basis of attributes such as race, religion, ethnic origin, national origin, sex, disability, sexual orientation, or gender identity.

This definition would define as “hate speech” the work of every famous stand-up or sketch comedian of the last century, including Richard Pryor, Chris Rock, SCTV, The Kids in the Hall, Jerry Seinfeld, Sarah Silverman and Russell Peters. It would, in effect, outlaw comedy, a vital form of free speech, as has already been done on many American campuses. As Caitlin Flanagan bemoaned in her 2015 article “That’s Not Funny”:

O, Utopia. Why must your sweet governance always turn so quickly from the Edenic to the Stalinist? The college revolutions of the 1960s — the ones that gave rise to the social-justice warriors of today’s campuses — were fueled by free speech. But once you’ve won a culture war, free speech is a nuisance, and “eliminating” language becomes a necessity.[xix]

Some activists have argued, ignoring standard dictionary definitions, that racial minorities cannot be racist given their history of oppression. So a “person of colour” could call for the mass extermination of the Jews without being accused of hate speech. AIP liberals’ willingness to paper over Sarah Jeong’s nasty Twitter history as mere “mimicry” of far right trolls is also illustrative of the fact that there is no clear common definition of what counts as racist hate speech.[xx]

Transgender activists at Laurier and elsewhere have argued in the press and on Facebook that merely talking about the validity of new pronouns is a form of hate speech. Similar reports have come from the UK, where transgender activists have been “quick to close down” criticisms of gender reassignment surgeries.[xxi]

Further, anyone who enthusiastically volunteers to be a moral and political censor is probably the last person on earth who you want doing the job. We’ve seen how this works in more extreme forms in totalitarian regimes — the people who joined the Gestapo, KGB, or Stasi weren’t warm-hearted defenders of human rights. Watch The Lives of Others or the documentary Karl Marx City (I fully realize I’m flirting with Godwin’s Law here, but the analogy is so tempting). The leaders of the anti-Communist crusade in America during the early 1950s (McCarthy and HUAC) were power-hungry liars who brandished imaginary lists of enemies of the state in congress. Even within our current reality, one only has to listen to the Laurier recordings to realize that campus censors are at minimum humourless and mildly paranoid ideological dogmatists who have little respect for either empirical facts or the law of non-contradiction.

Besides the Shepherd case, there have come to light of late other cases of thought policing on Canadians campuses. YouTuber “My Name is Josephine,” in reality Josephine Mathias, a student at Ryerson University, reported in 2017 how her sister Jane wrote an essay for her sociology class on the gender wage gap under conditions that violated her free speech rights.[xxii] The class was told in advance not to use newspaper or magazine articles, or data from Statistics Canada or provincial or federal government web sites since they lack “critical sociological analysis.” Speaking as someone who has literally written the book on critical sociological theory — Understanding Society, published by Oxford University Press — this is code for “ideologically suspect”. After completing her assignment, Jane Mathias received an email from her professor Kelly Train informing her that the “wage gap is very real,” and that she was confused for not using exclusively feminist sources. The email concludes “DO NOT use business sources. They blame women. The reality is patriarchy.” Josephine Mathias justly accuses Train of brainwashing. Ironically, Mathias should have been a poster girl for the AIP belief that we live in an oppressive “white patriarchy,” given the fact she is from a family of Nigerian immigrants, and thus scores three privilege points on the Kolhaktar scale. Yet she is clearly unafraid of putting forth her political views online, and resolutely rejects the presence of white privilege in Canada.[xxiii]

Just this week (September 2018) another such case came to light. A former student from the University of the Fraser Valley, Valerie Flokstra, leaked an eight-minute audio clip in which she is interrogated by her teacher education professors Nancy Norman and Vandy Britton for her linking of autism to abortion in class discussions and online. Flokstra doesn’t start crying as Shepherd did, and tries to stand up for her free-speech rights against her profs, who try to bully her into submission amidst sighs of desperation that she won’t submit to their Weltanschauung. Citing the potential dangers of emotional harm to other students (without any evidence that this has taken place), Britton argues against Flokstra’s free speech rights that there’s a difference between “critical thinking” and “critical mindedness.” I must have wasted all those years in grad school studying Hume, Kant, Hegel, Heidegger and Nietzsche, since I don’t have the analytical skills necessary to understand this distinction. Reading The Critique of Pure Reason was a piece of cake compared to comprehending the convoluted logic of AIP liberalism.[xxiv]

We can’t assume that campus speech cops will be infallible. What if the object of speech restriction feels, like Shepherd, that they were treated unjustly? As we’ve seen in a number of cases, such a person can’t turn to campus administrators for fair treatment: they will simply pass the buck, supporting the original findings of whatever committee of public safety the campus has established, or the whims of the angry mob (see Evergreen and Yale). Campus equity offices are equally useless, being staffed by AIP liberals who understand only a limited spectrum of discrimination: they would reject for purely ideological reasons the complaints of anyone silenced by campus thought police. Such people have no choice but to raise the issue in social media, or to contact a lawyer and sue the university in question, potentially costing millions more.[xxv]

Further, AIP liberals should take the long view before rushing to implement draconian campus speech codes. As the recent provincial election illustrated, there may come a day when they no longer control the ideological state apparatuses.

So the political morass that restrictions on freedom of speech would bring about is far worse than the pretended benefits of the policing of campus thought and speech.

Lastly, in a liberal democracy, it’s unethical to tell people that they can’t express or explore a given idea unless one can clearly prove that this suppression will save a large group of people, or society at large, from dire harm. Whether you adhere to Kant’s categorical imperative, Mill’s utilitarianism, Hume and Smith’s sense of moral sympathy, or Rawls’ contract theory, the great ethicists would all defend a robust sense of freedom of thought, speech and expression. As Rawls says, when we sign the social contract, our first principle should be a preservation of our liberty up to the point where this liberty seriously infringes on that of others. If we are to respect people as moral agents, the burden of ethical proof must be put on the censor.

Some people have argued that we need to inoculate universities from the “alt right” with speech and behaviour codes. In Canada, the alt right is a spectre haunting the paranoid dreams of AIP liberals. Here at Western, to my best of my knowledge, they control no formal student organizations, there are no professors claiming allegiance to their cause, and they have close to zero voice in the classroom. Once again, they are a folk devil invented to scare students and wavering faculty into submission to authority.

Mill’s defence of freedom of speech and ideas in On Liberty is unassailable: if what you’re saying is morally or empirically right, then it’s absurd for me to suppress your speech; but even if what you’re saying is in some sense “wrong” — and if you believe, with Hume, in the fact/value distinction, it’s not clear how an ethical principle can be “wrong” — debating the idea will not only sharpen your own intellectual tools, but will illustrate to the audience why they shouldn’t believe such an idea in the first place.

Suppressing dangerous ideas doesn’t make them go away — in the age of the Web 2.0, thought regulators lose much of their power once ideas exit the campus gates. At best, you can drive dangerous ideas underground, or onto Twitter or chat boards like 4chan, where the rules of logic and civility are considerably degraded, and insults, not scholarly studies, win arguments.

Further, hiding in safe spaces doesn’t solve the mental health problems that promoted their creation in the first place. We can interpret these in one of three ways. As places of physical safety, they are redundant: campus and city police forces, along with a tolerant attitude on campus, are our best guarantors of physical safety. We don’t want student mobs roaming the campus with baseball bats acting as auxiliary police (witness Evergreen State College in 2017), or the English department forming a revolutionary guard, armed with cattle prods, black uniforms, and copies of Gender Trouble (power up your Tardis and visit Paris circa 1794, or Maoist China circa 1966).

Arguing that safe spaces are places of “intellectual safety” makes no sense. Safety from what? Ideas you don’t agree with? Or which make you unhappy? If so, why did you come to university in the first place? Either debate these with their holders, or simply don’t attend talks by speakers you disagree with. It’s childish and unethical to pull fire alarms or threaten audiences who do want to hear these speakers: if you do this, you’re saying, in effect, “I have no intellectual defence against these ideas — they’re like a virus that must be exterminated. So I will prevent them from being uttered, or hide from them in quarantined spaces.” This is a direct violation of the mission of the university — to expose students to a wide variety of ideas, to expand them minds, and to give them the critical tools to separate the wheat from the chaff. Ideas are not diseases.

The third justification for “safe spaces” is to protect students from emotional harms. Yet this defence begs the question — why do the ideas you disagree with make you so upset that you must flee into a private space on campus to avoid them? There have been quite a few cases of students suffering very public mental breakdowns over political issues in the last few years, some of these seeming to be psychotic episodes.[xxvi] Added to this is the general acceptance that there is a “mental health crisis” on campus going back to at least 2012.[xxvii] In the US in 2017, almost half of college students had some sort of psychiatric disorder, with 73% reporting at least one mental health crisis during their school days.[xxviii]

This increase in mental illness among students has been blamed by psychologists (I believe correctly) on a shortlist of factors: over-protective parenting in middle-class families (not letting little Jen or Johnny play without adult supervision), the rise of social media (which combine idealized forms of identity formation with bitter anonymous tribalism on political issues), economic insecurity (“will I get a job when I graduate?”), and a fleeing from responsibility by primary and high schools (the school is a physical and ideological “safe zone,” and everyone passes).

To cure someone of an anxiety or phobia, you don’t hide the object of that fear from the patient. You slowly expose them to it — you show the arachnophobe some spiders, you take the agoraphobe out for a walk. Maybe if you’re using a campus safe space to hide from emotional harm, what you need isn’t another university class, but a good psychiatrist, or a Buddhist guru. Public policy on freedom of expression shouldn’t be based on the emotional needs of those suffering from serious forms of mental illness.

On a related issue, moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt argues that as late as the 1990s, liberals out-numbered conservatives in the American professoriate by a ratio of about 4 to 1. Now the ratio is about 17 to 1.[xxix] This isn’t an accident, but the result of a Foucauldian process of using power-knowledge to implement a form of ideological supremacy through a skewed hiring process — like hires like. As Haidt suggests in his new book and in a variety of talks,[xxx] this lack of viewpoint diversity is bad for students, for dissenting professors, and for the polity as a whole, since it creates an intellectual bubble in universities and among their graduates in mainstream broadcast media and the civil service. This leads to an inevitable backlash in the working class and rural America, throwing many of them into the arms of Trumpian populism. We don’t want this to happen north of the border.

I say this not as a conservative, but as an NDP-voting a social democrat who, on questions of political economy, is to the left of most AIP liberals (as confirmed by a recent political compass test). For one thing, I believe that economic class is the major cause of social inequality, not using the wrong pronouns. My dog in this race isn’t a defence of a specific ideological camp, but — and I realize this sounds corny — universal principles of justice and truth. We cannot restrict notions of justice only to those authoritarian liberals label as victims, or truth to the autobiographical musings of a few biologically-defined “traditionally disadvantaged” groups. For one thing, our affluent Western lifestyles are based on centuries of advances in science and technology that gave us steam engines, cars and smart phones, all of which would be impossible without a healthy respect for both open inquiry and the scientific method. And our Western notions of freedom and equality are based on centuries of political agitation for universal rights, from the English Civil War to the American and French Revolutions, from the Pankhursts’ campaign for female suffrage to Martin Luther King’s battle for civil rights for black Americans.

In short, Western should adopt a home-brewed version of the Chicago Statement, which argues that the university community be a free place where people can “discuss any problem that presents itself.”[xxxi] Further, it argues that it’s not the university’s job to “attempt to shield individuals from ideas and opinions they find unwelcome, disagreeable or even deeply offensive,” noting that fears of incivility or a lack of respect can “never be used as a justification for closing off the discussion of ideas.” It admits that expression that violates the law, or which constitutes a genuine threat or form of harassment, can be banned, but these are narrow exceptions to a general commitment to the “completely free and open discussion of ideas.”

To promote the individual freedoms of all on campus, and thus in the long term human equality, we must follow the principles outlined by the University of Chicago and in Section 2 of our Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and adopt a policy that champions as robust a notion of freedom of speech as possible, not one that picks and chooses which forms of speech it finds acceptable to suit current ideological fashions.


[i] See for one source of this group’s ideological raison d’etre.

[ii] Some of the key members of this group are discussed by Bari Weiss in her New York Times article of May 8, 2018, at The Times exiled her to Australia for her efforts, as the British Empire did with criminals in the 19th century:





[vii] Jean Twenge outlines this all in her book iGen, She argues that social media and “safetyism” have created a micro-generation of post-millennial students unable to deal with disagreement or adversity.

[viii] See; see also the excellent video series by Benjamin Boyce, “Exposé Evergreen”:

Boyce was just finishing his degree at the college in the term the protests took place.

[ix] See and

[x] For a critique see

[xi] This is startlingly similar to Stan Cohen’s description of how the church, mass media and state reacted to the rise of the Mods and Rockers in mid-60s England, as described in his labelling theory sociological classic Folk Devils and Moral Panics (1972).

[xii] I experienced this myself when I encountered a graduate student a couple of years ago on the UWO campus. He asked me if I was going to protest Jordan Peterson’s talk, which I didn’t know was taking place. I asked him which of Peterson’s views he objected to. He told me he didn’t know what his views were, only that they were somehow wrong.

[xiii] Clever satires like this one by Australian comedian Neel Kolhatkar never appear on broadcast media:

[xiv] See

[xv] See and Ben Boyce’s videos.

[xvi] See and

[xvii] See on the treatment of Peterson by journalists, and on the Jeong controversy.





[xxii], According to a recent study of 33 countries, the “gender wage gap” shrinks to 1.6% when comparing people in substantially similar occupations. So the oft-cited 77% figure is, to paraphrase Freud, a delusional remoulding of reality.

[xxiii] I see the dire effects of white male privilege several days a week in downtown London when homeless people ask me for money, or fall asleep on the sidewalk besides a piece of cardboard on which they’ve scrawled the stories of their failed lives. Very few of them are “people of colour,” and only about one in ten women.

[xxiv] Of course, I’m joking. “Critical mindedness” means “accept our ideas, or else.” See and Benjamin Boyce’s video “Harmful Facts Censored in Canadian Universities.” By the way, there is some clinical evidence supporting Flokstra’s claim.


[xxvi] There are many cases of this phenomenon. See:,,,




[xxx] Gregg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt, The Coddling of the American Mind, 2018. This book is an extended footnote to their 2015 article in The Atlantic:



Mr Nemo, W, X, Y, & Z, Saturday 6 October 2018

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