Freedom of Expression at UBC

NB: UBC has recently released a draft freedom of expression statement and requested feedback on it. I was privileged to be on the committee that helped draft the statement. I learned much from the experience. In lieu of commenting upon the draft, I offer instead a statement as I might have written one. What I learned from colleagues on the committee informs my statement below, but I would not suggest  that any of them would endorse it.


Recent events, especially in the United States of America (for example, at the University of Virginia and at the University of Florida), have triggered much discussion of the proper protections for free speech on university campuses. A number of US universities, notably Berkeley and Chicago, have issued statements expressing their commitments to the protection of free speech on campus. Free speech issues also exist in Canada and have been brought to recent prominence not only due to our proximity to the US but also due to events at Canadian universities (for example, Dalhousie and University of Toronto)–and due to larger Canadian issues such as the truth and reconciliation project between settler Canadians and Indigenous peoples.

In matters of freedom of expression, the Canadian context is emphatically not the US context. While freedom of expression is one of the “fundamental freedoms” guaranteed in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, it is not granted extraordinary or pre-eminent status in the Charter. All the fundamental freedoms (which include freedom of religion, freedom of peaceful assembly, freedom of association, and freedom of the press) are granted equivalent status with various other sorts of rights, including democratic, mobility, legal, and equality rights. The relation of the Charter to public Canadian universities is a complex matter, but it would be fair to say that Canadian universities do and ought to subscribe to Charter values. Another crucial difference between the Canadian and US contexts is that Canada itself and the Canadian provinces and territories have hate speech laws. That is, as both a legal and a cultural matter, freedom of speech in Canada is different from freedom of speech in the United States.

Freedom of expression requires special consideration within university communities. The value and nature of freedom of expression within any community depends on that community’s goals–and the primary goals of a university community are the production, communication, and preservation of knowledge. Responsible expression within our communities is directed toward these goals. Thus, a university should reject any conception of freedom of expression that claims such freedom amounts to the freedom strongly to express one’s already-formed opinions. The free expression of already-formed opinions is one starting point for academic discussions but it must not be the general form of those discussions. The already-formed opinions of the members of the scholarly community are precisely what freedom of expression is meant to challenge and what a free exchange of ideas is meant to supplant with more well-supported and well-argued knowledge claims. Demanding your right to proclaim your already-formed opinions, accordingly, is a misunderstanding of the role of speech and of argument in the production and transfer of knowledge. It is not what freedom of expression is or should be at universities.

The equality rights in the Charter, the hate speech laws of various Canadian jurisdictions, and various policies such as the UBC Respectful Environment Statement acquire particular importance in the university context. When a person is admitted as a student to a university or is hired as a faculty or staff member, that person is admitted into the scholarly community that forms the institution. The university has already decided that that individual has the right to speak in the critical discussion that we take on as a necessary part of our mission. The fitness of those admitted to our community to join that discussion is no longer an open question. Speech that calls that right into question by denigrating the religious beliefs, the ethnic or national identity, the sexual orientation, the gender expression, and so on of some community members is speech that performs discrimination, exclusion, and marginalization. It is speech that renders some members of our community unable fully to speak by denying that they are worth listening to. That disabling of certain speakers must not be tolerated; it is itself antithetical to the proper goals of freedom of expression within our community.

This is not an argument for banning abhorrent speech; it is an argument for upholding the norms of the constitution of our academic communities, substantive norms we have chosen because they are necessary if we are to reach our academic goals. It is an argument that hate speech harms the very practices that universities are charged to engage in. It is an argument that speech partially constitutes our social relations and must be engaged in responsibly.  UBC has noted this in its Respectful Environment Statement:

“Freedom of expression and freedom of inquiry must be exercised responsibly, in ways that recognize and respect the dignity of others, having careful regard to the dynamics of different relationships within the university environment, such as between professor and student, or supervisor and employee.”

Those who wish to use their freedom of expression simply to repeat their already-formed opinions will find many outlets for so doing. But those who wish to engage with us at UBC, should come to speak, to listen, genuinely to discuss and argue about topics currently under discussion within our community. If they are unwilling to do these things, then we and they must recognize that they seek in the university not an audience but a platform, that they come not to enter our community of inquiry but to disrupt it. They have the right to try to disrupt our community; we have the right to uphold it. And we will uphold it.

At UBC we have a special resource to help us understand and further the free expression that is necessary for our pursuit of knowledge. Our campuses are on traditional, ancestral, and unceded Aboriginal territory. The First Nations that are our hosts have their own practices of free expression and truth telling. As we move toward truth and reconciliation, toward decolonization, we have much to learn from First Nations communities about how to structure our community and how to discover and communicate significant knowledge.