Statement from the Provost regarding controversial speakers

September 24, 2019

To the students, faculty and staff of UBC:

I wish to address the community on news that the student-led UBC Students for Freedom of Expression, which is independent of the university, has invited several controversial speakers to present their views on campus through the fall.

Among those speakers are Mark Hecht and Ricardo Duchesne. Mark Hecht authored a widely condemned opinion piece for the Vancouver Sun that was critical of diversity and questioned the value of tolerance and inclusion of immigrants in society. Ricardo Duchesne has criticized multiculturalism and Canada’s immigration policies.

While UBC as an institution permits members of its community to invite speakers to its campuses, this does not mean UBC supports, endorses or agrees with the views of those speakers. 

Our university’s values – and my personal values – include a clear commitment to the principles of internationalization, global citizenship, equity, diversity, inclusion and maintaining a respectful environment, both among students, faculty and staff and in our commitment to educating future leaders. We truly value and celebrate all members of our community and we stand strongly behind advancing equity and inclusion and inviting people, from around the world, to study and work at UBC. Inclusion is a key theme called out in our strategic plan Shaping UBC’s Next Century. Our university will maintain a proactive stance on the values of inclusion, acceptance and the respect of all individuals in our community and beyond. Those are the values UBC stands for, and the values I personally work to support.

In the minds of some, this will raise the question as to why UBC is allowing the event to proceed. Over hundreds of years, universities have played a central role in providing a forum where ideas can be expressed, debated, and challenged, and where participants can gain insight and greater mutual understanding. Through this role they have contributed to a better understanding of the world. UBC is the inheritor of this tradition and has long pursued proactive support for academic freedom and freedom of expression as core values. My personal values are firmly in this direction, too. Discussion and debate cannot occur without the free and lawful expression of ideas, even those we may fundamentally disagree with, find distasteful, or even repugnant.

In our consideration of booking requests, we examine several key factors, including academic freedom, freedom of expression, security concerns and whether the speakers have, under Criminal Code of Canada provisions, been convicted of hate speech or have been found by a Human Rights Tribunal to have breached speech provisions. In the case of the speakers this fall, they have not. Any speaker convicted of hate speech, or to have breached similar provisions by a Human Rights Tribunal in Canada, would not be permitted to present those views at UBC.

I will once again refer our community to the Vancouver Senate Statement on Academic Freedom which guides us in this regard:  

The members of the University enjoy certain rights and privileges essential to the fulfilment of its primary functions: instruction and the pursuit of knowledge. Central among these rights is the freedom, within the law, to pursue what seems to them as fruitful avenues of inquiry, to teach and to learn unhindered by external or non-academic constraints, and to engage in full and unrestricted consideration of any opinion. This freedom extends not only to the regular members of the University, but to all who are invited to participate in its forum. Suppression of this freedom, whether by institutions of the state, the officers of the University, or the actions of private individuals, would prevent the University from carrying out its primary functions. All members of the University must recognize this fundamental principle and must share responsibility for supporting, safeguarding and preserving this central freedom. Behaviour that obstructs free and full discussion, not only of ideas that are safe and accepted, but of those which may be unpopular or even abhorrent, vitally threatens the integrity of the University's forum. Such behaviour cannot be tolerated

A second important point concerning free expression is outlined in UBC Board of Governor’s Policy UP9 Space Rental Policy (formerly Policy 107: Booking and Rental of UBC Space). UBC’s commitment to freedom of expression includes speakers booked by students, such as those invited to events planned for the fall. This policy is followed even when some or even a majority of members of the university community may consider a guest speaker’s ideas, or the way in which they are expressed, to be controversial or offensive. 

As you may know, the relevant policies are being examined by the Board of Governors and the Senates in an effort to understand the impact of controversial, external and internal events on the university community and whether changes should be made to these policies. Those discussions have just begun so it is too early to provide a resolution date at this time. Until those processes are complete, the existing policies will be followed for all bookings requested by internal and external groups.

Establishing a balance among the principles of academic freedom and freedom of expression and our commitments to equity and inclusion is not an easy process, and always requires very careful consideration.

I wish to assure those in the community concerned about potential safety and security issues that UBC Campus Security advises the administration on best practices to follow regarding events on campus, and works closely with the RCMP and other campus service providers to ensure we have measures in place so our students, faculty and staff are kept safe and are supported.

If you are, or if someone you know is, negatively impacted by this event, UBC has resources available to students, faculty, and staff if support is needed. Support services are available for students at UBC Counselling Services and UBC Health Services and to faculty and staff through the UBC Employee & Family Assistance Program.

Andrew Szeri
Provost and Vice-President, Academic, UBC Vancouver


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