Reconciling expression rights and equality rights to advance social equity

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

As the university sector deepens its commitments to advancing social equity, the capacity to reconcile expression and equality rights is more important than ever to maintain the vitality of the university and its increasingly diversifying community of students, scholars, and staff.

UBC’s vision – “to inspire people, ideas and actions for a better world” – and its purpose – “to pursue excellence in research, learning and engagement to foster global citizenship and advance a sustainable and just society across British Columbia, Canada and the world” – are underpinned by five values: “excellence, integrity, respect, academic freedom, and accountability”. Within these values, two fundamental rights and freedoms must consistently be considered in tandem: (1) the right to express and pursue all manner of thought and ideas, embodied in the value for academic freedom, and (2) the right to equality and freedom from discrimination and harassment, embodied in the value for respect.

In the statement of values, respect is described as “an essential and learned value” referring to “the regard felt or shown towards different people, ideas and actions”, while academic freedom is described as a “unique value of the academy” referring to “a scholar’s freedom to express ideas through respectful discourse and the pursuit of open discussion, without risk of censure”.

As the university sector deepens its commitments to advancing social equity – on campus, locally, and globally – the capacity to reconcile expression and equality rights is more important than ever to maintain the vitality of the university and its increasingly diversifying community of students, scholars, and staff. The question becomes how can we better hold these rights in a healthy tension and carefully negotiate a way through this tension to honour legal obligations and ethical aspirations.

Boundaries of academic freedom

In 2011, Universities Canada adopted a new Statement on Academic Freedom, which was accepted unanimously by university presidents. This statement offers several important reflections on the responsibilities associated with the right to academic freedom: 

Evidence and truth are the guiding principles…Thus, academic freedom must be based on reasoned discourse, rigorous extensive research and scholarship, and peer review. Academic freedom is constrained by the professional standards of the relevant discipline…The insistence on professional standards speaks to the rigor of the enquiry and not to its outcome.

The university must also defend academic freedom against interpretations that are excessive or too loose, and the claims that may spring from such definitions. Universities must also ensure that the rights and freedoms of others are respected, and that academic freedom is exercised in a reasonable and responsible manner.”

– Universities Canada, 2011

These caveats, outlining the boundaries of academic freedom are extremely helpful to the goal of reconciling expression and equality rights challenges that emerge on campus. The boundaries reinforce the importance of considering the interconnections between academic freedom and the constellation of fundamental freedoms and human rights outlined in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, both federal and provincial human rights legislation that protects against discrimination, as well as the Canadian Criminal Code that protects against bias motivated or bigoted hate speech.

When analyzing whether and how to reconcile expression and equality rights challenges at UBC, we must, of course, follow our university policy on academic freedom, though we would greatly benefit from considering the position described by the Universities Canada statement. In cases where hate speech or discrimination thresholds are met, then we must also consider whether laws of the land or university policies apply. In cases where the expression and equality rights challenges at play do not amount to illegal actions, an ethics of care is a necessary framework – though it is useful in any situation when skillfully applied. 

An ethics of care approach

An ethics of care is a framework originated by Carol Gilligan (1982), which centres interpersonal relations, elevates care for others, and requires consideration of cultural contexts to counteract the trend towards transactional processes, personally harmful practices, and cultural detachment that can often characterize debates surrounding expression and equality rights. 

Oftentimes, expression and equality rights are treated as though they are mutually exclusive, which leads to polarized and simplistic debates rather than layered and complex dialogue about how the issues might be considered along an expression – equality continuum. If we understand that speech acts that deny the human rights (dignity, equality, and freedom) of others can have considerable traumatic psychic impacts, then we might embrace a trauma-informed ethics of care approach to reconciling expression and equality challenges. 

Derald Wing Sue (2007) has, in fact, written prolifically about the psychic impacts of micro-aggressions, which he describes are often unconscious, unintentional (but sometimes conscious, intentional) everyday indignities that have cumulative negative effects. Kevin L. Nadal (2018) also suggests micro-aggressions can have long-lasting effects on mental health and may lead to psychological trauma among historically marginalized persons persistently exposed to these micro-aggressions, regardless of intent.

Successfully negotiating and reconciling expression and equality rights amidst the growing diversity of peoples and perspectives on our campuses requires three key competencies:

  • humility – the courage to acknowledge the limits of our knowledge and experience, while raising important questions and critiques, 
  • curiosity – the openness to suspend judgement and seek understanding when encountering ideas and beliefs that are different from our own, while pursuing ideas and beliefs not rooted in bias or baseless opinions, and 
  • empathy – the compassion to treat each other with dignity and to seek to do no further harm, while challenging ideas and beliefs which themselves may be perpetuating psychic harm.

As the university sector and the higher education ecosystem reinforce their commitments to advance equity, diversity, and inclusion, understanding the legal landscape and appropriately applying the range of policy instruments is as important as understanding the moral imperative to care for the health and wellbeing of individuals and communities involved. In particular, this means paying attention to the impacts of historically marginalized groups who are frequently further marginalized when they seek to equally exercise their right to freedom of expression, to academic freedom, and to freedom from discrimination. 


Gilligan, C. (1982) In a different voice: Psychological theory and women’s development. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Nadal, K.L. (2018). Microaggressions and traumatic stress: Theory, research and clinical treatment. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Sue, D.W. (2010). Microaggressions in everyday life: Race, gender, and sexual orientation. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.