Frequently Asked Questions

1. How does UBC define academic freedom, and to whom does it apply?

The practice of academic freedom serves to promote the primary goals of the university: teaching and research, and all that those activities entail. According to the UBC Senate policy, academic freedom consists of “the freedom, within the law, to pursue what seems to [members of the University] 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” (UBC Senate Policy on Academic Freedom). Academic freedom applies to “the regular members of the University” as well as “to all who are invited to participate in its forum.”  This includes the members of the Board of Governors, alumni, adjuncts, those granted honorary degrees, as well as students, faculty and staff—full-time or part-time. It is important to keep in mind that academic freedom is not a legal right. It is an academic convention that has been reflected in the formal policies of UBC. It constitutes the right of members of the UBC university community to express ideas without fear of repercussions from UBC. However academic freedom does not confer any legal protections outside of the university.

2. Who protects academic freedom?

In principle, every member of UBC ought to protect academic freedom. According to the UBC Senate Policy on Academic Freedom: “all members of the University... must share responsibility for supporting, safeguarding and preserving this central freedom.” It should be noted that there are alternative definitions of academic freedom that are recognized by the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT), by Universities Canada/Universités Canada (formerly AUCC), and by UNESCO. There is, however, no language in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms specifically on academic freedom.

3. Does academic freedom apply only to individuals?

No. Most rights, including academic freedom, are usually granted and exercised by individuals, by virtue of their membership or identity in a group. There are, however, group rights, particularly for institutions such as a university. This means that UBC as a whole could adopt specific positions, for example on its indigenous heritage, or climate change, provided these pertain directly to its right to self-determination and the forging of its collective identity, and provided also that such adoption does not encroach upon the academic freedom of individuals to disagree. For more on group rights, see

Furthermore, the British Columbia University Act of 1996 states that “a university has the power and capacity of a natural person of full capacity” (46.1). This grants UBC considerable autonomy in its actions, and immunity from interference from the provincial government, specifically on the formulation and adoption of academic polices and standards, and the selection and appointment of staff (48.1). The original B.C. Act of 1908 stipulated that UBC “shall be strictly non-sectarian in principle, and no religious creed or dogma shall be taught” (Article 95). The revised act of 1996 states that the university “must be non-sectarian and non-political in principle” (66.1).

4. Are there limits on individual academic freedom?

Yes, speech, publications and actions must be lawful and (although this is not a limit) ideally maintain a respectful environment. Also, the word academic modifies freedom in such a way that the choices and actions that are undertaken should be subject to the broad dictates of scholarly disciplines. Finally, depending upon one's level of responsibility in the organization, academic freedom may be more limited. Senior administrators, when acting in their official capacity, are held to a different standard, insofar as they must uphold and implement policies and procedures of the institution.

5. What about institutional responsibility?

UBC has a positive obligation to support academic freedom, and to ensure that its members might most effectively pursue research, teaching and service that expand the frontier of knowledge. Given this mandate, the university seeks to put in place structures, procedures, and practices that promote independent thinking and that safeguard the institution and its members from external political, religious, or commercial interference. See UBC Policy FM6: Fundraising and Acceptance of Donations.

6. What about academic responsibility?

Academic freedom includes academic responsibility, namely the obligation to uphold scholarly integrity and to comply with the prevailing scholarly practices within a given field of specialization (UBC Policy SC6: Scholarly Integrity). Likewise, UBC members are expected to act in ways that do not “undermine public confidence and trust” in the university (see UBC Policy SC3: Conflict of Interest and Conflict of Commitment).  In the 2015 report by the Honorable Lynn Smith, she noted that, “the duties of honesty and good faith must be understood in the context of the professional standards within which a faculty (or other University) member operates, and the pursuit of excellence to which the University is committed. The Collective Agreement itself recognizes that in, for example, promotion and tenure reviews, ‘consideration of appropriate standards of excellence across and within faculties and discipline’ is to be one of the key factors.”

7. Why host controversial speakers?

UBC has a commitment to maintain an open and inclusive forum, as cited in the UBC Senate policy:

“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.”

The majority of public speakers on campus are invited by members of the UBC community. It is possible, however, for individuals and groups with no connection to UBC to book space for a speaker. It is important to underscore that UBC does not endorse the views of any speakers or the organizations booking events.

Engaging different points of view is part of the process of pedagogy and of research; however, the booking of space to controversial speakers requires a balance of considerations, with academic freedom on the one hand, and public safety and compliance with the law on the other. UBC strives to uphold the wellbeing of all members of its community and is strongly committed to fostering a campus with civility and respect, and upholding the values of equity, diversity and inclusion. See

8. What is freedom of expression and how does it differ from academic freedom?

The right to freedom of expression has a venerable history, reaching back for centuries. In the English language, freedom of expression was championed by John Milton (1644) and John Stuart Mill (1859). Its global reach is best captured by Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.” Expression includes all forms of communication: oral, written, artistic, visual and digital. 

In Canada, freedom of expression is a legal right granted by the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The Criminal Code of Canada imposes limits, however, on hate speech or child pornography for example, as does the tort of defamation in civil law.  Further reflection indicates that there are innumerable additional restrictions, whether intentionally inciting a riot or disturbing the peace. Most urban jurisdictions impose bylaws that limit “noise” and other forms of expression, the position of billboards and signs for example.

It is important to distinguish academic freedom from freedom of expression. Academic freedom and freedom of expression overlap, like a Venn diagram, but they differ in certain critical respects. The mission of each type of freedom is different, as is its sphere of influence. Most significantly, academic freedom is not a legal right, but rather a right or a privilege bestowed by an institution of higher learning. It might best be construed as an ethical right, insofar as it serves good ends: the advancement and dissemination of knowledge.

Reflections on academic freedom reach back at least to the early modern period, if not to Socrates, but only became formally binding in the early twentieth century, as for example with the charter of UBC in 1908, or the statement issued by the American Association of University Professors in 1915. Academic freedom has evolved considerably over the past hundred years, sustained by the core principle of freedom of inquiry. Nevertheless, there is a clear lack of consensus on its definition or application. A survey of leading universities in Canada and abroad indicates that there is a plethora of definitions. The policy at UBC, adopted in 1977, remains one of the most capacious in North America, not only because it stipulates both “rights and privileges,” includes “all members” as well as those “invited to participate in its forum,” but also because it encourages the unobstructed “free and full discussion” of ideas “which may be unpopular or even abhorrent.”

In the case of academic freedom, the operative word is “academic.” It modifies the activity of those who belong to the university. One helpful way to understand this freedom is to situate it as a choice among alternative positions in a specific branch of knowledge. Academic freedom is thus the freedom to choose one belief over that of another, whether in the classroom, research, public lectures, or artistic presentations. That said, the choice is made within a context, qua academic, and is therefore governed by academic standards.

Here follows an example of de facto limitations to pedagogical freedom. In the science faculties at UBC, the theory of evolution is taught, whilst intelligent design theory (popularly known as creationism) is not. This, quite simply, is because the latter does not readily meet the standards of scientific reasoning. The findings from a wide array of scientific fields—genetics, paleontology, morphology, biogeography, and cytology—refute intelligent design and corroborate biological evolution. Discussions of creationism might be welcome elsewhere, however, as instances of freedom of expression, much as one might discuss astrology, or other belief systems that were once ascendant. This illustrates the sense whereby scholarly standards restrict the types of choices made under the purview of academic freedom. It is at these crossroads that academic freedom and freedom of expression most diverge.

While debate is a healthy component of scientific research, published findings must accord with disciplinary methods and reasoning as well as meet the rigors of peer review. Established standards for scholarship and pedagogy shape every judgment taken by an academic, such as the selection of specific problems for research, the decisions to hire and promote, and the decisions to accept or reject specific claims. Every first-year undergraduate partakes in this mission as they embark on a path of learning and expertise, deepened and expanded by each year of study.

All rights have correlative obligations. Academics are obliged not only to adhere to scholarly integrity, but also to speak and write with the full weight of their expertise. They are also obliged to disseminate their findings. Universities are not a place for those who choose to remain silent. This is another important respect in which academic freedom diverges from freedom of expression.

Finally, the context in which academic freedom has been challenged results in very different disciplinary outcomes than in the case of violations of the right to freedom of expression. According to the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT), there are few legal precedents that pertain to restrictions on academic freedom. For specific examples of conflicts faced by Canadian academics, see the CAUT website:

9. Why limit some controversial speakers whose ideas prove offensive to some members of the UBC community?

Academic freedom includes the right not only to express controversial ideas but also to hear them. Nevertheless, the UBC Senate Policy on Academic Freedom stipulates that the expressed ideas must fall within the law, and as a result, some speakers may be restricted from presenting at UBC. They may also be prevented if there is a risk to the safety and security of event attendees or other persons on campus, or a material risk to property, that cannot be adequately mitigated.

A given speaker known to have breached the provisions regarding speech or publication, as determined by a judgement of a Human Rights Tribunal in Canada, or pursuant to the Criminal Code of Canada, would not be permitted to present those views at UBC. Anyone—speaker or audience member—who believes their rights have been violated, could file a complaint with the B.C. Human Rights Tribunal, an independent, judicial body created under the auspices of the B.C. Human Rights Code. The tribunal interprets the provisions of the B.C. Human Rights Code and reaches a decision as to whether a given speaker at UBC might have violated the human rights of another person. See the B.C. Human Rights Code. Anyone who believes that they have experienced hate speech, including members of the audience, could file a complaint to the police. The crime of Public Incitement of Hatred is defined by Section 319 of the Criminal Code of Canada.

10. What is the university's process for identifying and managing risk associated with controversial speakers?

UBC’s commitment to freedom of expression and freedom of assembly includes the right to protest on campus, provided that the protestors do not break the law and follow the direction of Campus Security. In the case of some controversial events, Campus Security and, if necessary, the RCMP, will set up a temporary zone where community members could protest peacefully and make their voices heard.

The safety and security of our campus community is always our number one priority, and all events on campus are subject to a risk assessment. Most scheduled appearances of controversial speakers go ahead, provided safety protocols have been met. For guidance regarding booking and rental of UBC space, please see UBC Policy UP9: Space Rental Policy.

As part of this policy, UBC requests the use of the risk identification tool for all event bookings. Should booking requests demonstrate potentially elevated risks, they will be evaluated by the Event Threat Assessment Group (ETAG). The focus of this group is community and public safety, and events are evaluated based on two criteria:

  • Events with controversial content or speakers may be evaluated by external counsel (see FAQ9).
  • Working with event organizers, all safety concerns are identified and assessed for possible supports and mitigations.

If residual risks are sufficiently high, UBC develops a security plan and may require additional security measures. In circumstances involving controversial speakers which we expect will draw protests, our Campus Safety and Security team will collaborate with the RCMP to ensure that appropriate resources are deployed to keep our community safe and diverse voices heard. The university will always make every effort to protect the safety of students, faculty, staff, UBC infrastructure and the wider community by ensuring adequate security presence and/or police presence. Where the university deems it is not possible to maintain safety, even with mitigation plans, the event may be cancelled.

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