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CAUT Bulletin Archives

September 2003

CAUT Defends Academics Named in Major Lawsuit

University of British Columbia graduate student Cynthia Maughan has filed an $18million lawsuit in B.C.'s Supreme Court against the university and four faculty members, alleging discrimination against her based on her Christian beliefs.

"The unfounded allegations of discrimination in this case raise fundamental issues of academic freedom that have potential implications for every faculty member in the country," said CAUT executive director James Turk. "Issues include our freedom in conducting our classes, what we can say in seminars and class discussions, what comments we write on papers and our right to be frank in letters we write."

Maughan, an M.A. student in English, enrolled in Professor Lorraine Weir's graduate course Strategies in Literary Theory in January 2001.

According to the statement of claim, Maughan alleges that Weir acted in a discriminatory manner. For example, Weir is cited for allowing students to schedule a special class on a Sunday, to which Maughan had not initially objected, and notwithstanding the fact that when Maughan did raise a concern, Weir gave her an alternative assignment in lieu of the class.

She also objected to the critical comments she received from Weir on her papers and to the professor's expressed concern because she refused to participate in class discussions.

Maughan's court action was preceded by appeals to the English department's equity committee, the faculty of graduate studies and UBC's Senate Committee on Appeals on Academic Standing. Each appeal was made on a somewhat different basis and, in each case, her appeal was rejected.

Both the English department and the faculty of graduate studies found there was no wrongdoing on the part of Weir. The senate committee, while dismissing the appeal, made additional comments that criticized Weir for failing to open an email attachment from Maughan in a timely manner and criticized the English department for attacking Maughan's character.

Maughan's allegations against the three other faculty members arise out of the appeals. Two of the faculty members are named in her suit because of objections to letters they submitted to appeal bodies. The third faculty member is named because she is alleged to have demonstrated "antipathy toward the Plaintiff" during Maughan's initial appeal to the department of English.

Maughan also alleges UBC failed to act against a fellow graduate student who posted a document on a closed, graduate student-only list-server in November 2000 that was bitterly critical of a Christian candidate running in a political election at the time and which Maughan alleges is discriminatory against Christians.

Maughan is being represented by well-known, Calgary-based constitutional lawyer, Gerald Chipeur, a fellow of the International Academy for Freedom of Religion and Belief and a trustee of Canadian University College.

The lawsuit has drawn widespread media attention, including coverage in the National Post "Christian 'Exposed to Contempt'," The (Alberta) Report "Let's hope Cynthia Maughan beats the Christian-bashers at UBC," the (U.S.) Midwest Conservative Journal and Liberty: A Magazine of Religious Freedom, and was highlighted on the Ku Klux Klan web site under International News Affecting White Christians World Wide.

The university has provided initial legal representation for itself and for the four faculty defendants. CAUT and the UBC Faculty Association have agreed the serious academic freedom issues require that the four faculty members have independent legal counsel and that CAUT take responsibility for providing it. To assist CAUT with giving independent legal counsel to the faculty members, the faculty association has donated $50,000 to CAUT. If all of this money is not needed for defence in this case, the remainder will be transferred to the CAUT Academic Freedom Fund.