Navigating Human Rights and Expression Rights with an Ethic of Care

Dr. Arig al Shaibah, Associate Vice-President, Equity & Inclusion

The Equity & Inclusion Office (EIO) joins students, faculty, and staff in expressing care and concern for those experiencing and/or witnessing immeasurable loss and grief as a consequence of the Israel-Palestine conflict and ongoing war.

Through this ongoing difficult time, the EIO continues to provide confidential advising and community capacity building to promote safety, dignity and equity in learning and working environments.

This discussion document has been issued by EIO to provide guidance to the UBC community1 in the following areas:

  1. reporting and addressing discrimination, bullying and harassment – with a discussion of antisemitism and Islamophobic, as well as ‘hate speech’; 
  2. understanding obligations and limits of freedom of expression and academic freedom, and
  3. fostering critical and constructive dialogue across difference.

1 To the extent there is any difference on how issues are discussed in this document and UBC’s policies the UBC policies will govern. 

1.      Reporting and addressing discrimination, bullying and harassment

UBC’s commitment and responsibility to provide an environment that is free of discrimination, as well as harmful behaviours such as bullying and harassment, are set out in the university’s Discrimination Policy,  Respectful Environment Statement, and Student Code of Conduct.

  • Contact Campus Security or the Student Conduct Office to report concerns of conduct violating the Student Code of Conduct.

Antisemitism, Islamophobia and ‘Hate Speech’

*Content Warning: The section below describes some harmful stereotypical tropes that could constitute forms of discrimination under human rights law.

Antisemitism and Islamophobia are specific examples of discrimination. The EIO has a particular role to play when it comes to the prevention and timely response to concerns of discrimination. When the EIO receives concerns or complaints of antisemitism and/or Islamophobic discrimination, we are guided by what the human rights case law says constitutes these forms of discrimination. The EIO takes every report of antisemitism, anti-Jewish racism, Islamophobia, anti-Muslim, anti-Arab racism and other forms of discrimination seriously, and we respond accordingly, commensurate with the nature of the incidents, in compliance with UBC policies and relevant laws. It is important to note that, with both antisemitism and Islamophobia, a common tactic is to assign collective guilt and blame to all members of the religion, “race”, and/or ethnicity when individuals or sub-groups (including state or non-state actors) commit objectionable or heinous acts (OHRC, 2015, p.17)1. This tactic might amount to discrimination whereas criticizing a state or government regime might not.

UBC’s Discrimination Policy (SC7) states that the prohibited grounds under this Policy will be interpreted in the same way as they are interpreted by the BC Human Rights Tribunal.

(i) Antisemitism:

According to the BC Human Rights Tribunal and BC courts, harmful stereotypical tropes about Jewish peoples may constitute discrimination – such as presumed links to conspiracies, control of the media, control of money, characteristics of dishonesty, deception, and disloyalty. The Tribunal and Courts have also been very clear that denying or minimizing the occurrence or impact of the Holocaust, linking the behaviour of Jewish people with Nazis, and/or celebrating and promoting Hitler and Nazi regimes, including related symbols and artefacts, are discriminatory acts.

(ii) Islamophobia:

According to the BC Human Rights Tribunal and BC courts stereotypical tropes, acts of hostility, racial profiling, greater scrutiny or security surveillance directed at Muslim peoples or those perceived to be Muslim may constitute discrimination. As well, comments and conduct that broadly view the Islamic religion and traditions as well as cultures of Muslim peoples as “barbaric” or inherently threatening are discriminatory. It is notable that some experts prefer to use the term anti-Muslim discrimination to distinguish it from lawful critiques of Islam, among critiques of other organized religions.

(iii) ‘Hate Speech’

‘Hate speech’ is a colloquial term that is generally used to describe speech that might violate the various laws that govern certain types of hateful or derogatory speech or public displays. For example the Criminal Code of Canada has laws against the “Wilful Promotion of Hatred” and the BC Human Rights Code has provisions against “Discriminatory Publications”. Other provisions in these statutes might govern ‘hate speech’ as well. Allegations of ‘hate speech’ are addressed at UBC using its own policies such as the Student Code of Conduct or the Discrimination Policy. The following website contains some helpful information about what constitutes ‘hate speech’ according to the Human Rights Code and the Human Rights Tribunal and also discusses the Criminal Code provisions:

Allegations of discrimination require careful analysis as there is a difference between, on the one hand, the legitimate criticism of states or governments or their actors, and on the other hand, comments and conduct that promote discriminatory tropes targeting a religion, culture, or peoples. Many factors need to be analyzed in each case, including evidence that there is a connection or nexus between the negative treatment experienced and at least one of the Code protected grounds or characteristics.

However, as a general practice, members of the UBC community should avoid and reject rhetoric that is or may activate discriminatory stereotypical tropes about religious, racial, and/or ethnic groups or that makes broad assumptions and/or targets particular groups based on their group identities or personal ideologies. While some conduct or comment may not rise to the legal definition of inciting hatred or discrimination, that behaviour may still be hurtful and not in keeping with UBC’s commitment to respect, inclusion, and safety for all. 

Click here to review UBC’s Discrimination Complaint Process.

2.      Understanding obligations and limits to freedom of expression and academic freedom

Freedom of expression is a foundational right in a free and open society and should, therefore, be strongly protected. Academic freedom is also a fundamental right unique to the academy, permitting members of the university and invitees to teach, learn, and consider a wide range of opinions without interference from the university administration and others.   

Neither freedom of expression nor academic freedom are limitless. For example, speech can be limited if found to rise to the level of inciting hatred or discrimination, as set out by the Criminal Code and human rights laws. It may also constitute defamation or a violation of copyright law. However, impassioned expression does not necessarily equate to illegality.  

The following four strategies may be used by instructors/educators to protect academic freedom and promote curiosity and inclusivity in educational environments (Manning, 2018)2:

  • Foster an educational space that invites divergent viewpoints on contentious subjects, while facilitating respectful and non-discriminatory engagement with ideas. To support such approaches, we encourage instructors to enrol in a workshop on facilitating conversations across difference (Contact the EIO, for form information). 
  • Examine and invite examination of personal assumptions about and intolerance towards differing cultural and political perspectives and experiences. 
  • Introduce material and commentary that is germane to the subject of instruction, which is academically and/or pedagogically relevant and rigorous. 
  • Be mindful that academic topics and education methods of instruction do not move towards “indoctrination” of opinions and ideologies. Be cautious of claims of “facts”, and allow for counter arguments.

2 Organizational Theory in Higher Education, Kathleen Manning, Routledge, 2018.

Academic freedom not only includes the subject matter of research and courses, but also instructional style. As a result, instructors can teach subjects – in accordance with their expertise and the course topic they have been assigned – using methods and procedures they find aligns with educational goals.  This may include adding topics of discussion given current affairs. Of course, topics should not be discussed in ways that are hateful or discriminatory as described above. Moreover, academic freedom may allow instructors to weave in a diversity of teaching and learning pedagogies where the matter relates to their course topic. With respect to syllabus changes, Senate Policy V-130 suggests that where there is a “material change” to the syllabus, students should be given an opportunity to discuss the changes with the instructor if they perceive any potential impacts on their progress.

For more information, visit UBC’s online resources on academic freedom

3.      Fostering Critical and Constructive Dialogue Across Difference

The EIO is guided by human rights and social justice frameworks that not only call for timely and trauma-informed responses to reports of discrimination in accordance with UBC policies, but also call for proactive campus-wide prevention and education efforts to foster dialogue across difference. Skillful dialogue across difference has the potential to support critical and constructive engagement on social justice topics between and among social groups who may perceive and/or experience incompatible or irreconcilable values or goals. 

For maintaining respectful relations while maximizing learning within the conversation, Özlem Sensoy and Robin DiAngelo (2017, p. 4)3 offer the following guidelines:

  • Strive for intellectual [and emotional] humility.
  • Recognize the difference between opinions and informed knowledge.
  • Let go of personal anecdotal evidence and look at broader societal patterns.
  • Notice your own defensive reactions and attempt to use these reactions as entry points for gaining deeper self-knowledge.
  • Recognize how your own social positionality (such as your race, class, gender, sexuality, ability-status) informs your perspectives and reactions to your subjects and to the individuals whose work you study in the course.

3 Sensoy, Ö. & D’Angelo, R. (2017). Is everyone really equal? 2nd ed. Teachers College, Columbia University.

Please note that consideration of individuals’ relationships with the war is important when determining whether and how to approach interpersonal or intergroup conversations. 

Explore the following additional guides and tools:

Relevant EIO Contacts

The EIO’s Equity Strategists are available to support intragroup discussion and listening sessions as well as to provide advice about or help facilitate intergroup dialogue across difference. Please complete the online Form to Request a Consultation or email

The EIO’s Human Rights Advisors are available to provide confidential, impartial, and accessible consultation, information, and referrals for concerns about discrimination. Please complete the online Form to Request Advising or email (UBCV) or (UBCO).