The Social Justice Centre (SJC) at the University of British Columbia is suing a prominent Jewish organization and one former contractor for defamation after pro-Hamas stickers bearing the SJC's logo were placed on campus in November.
The stickers said "I [heart] Hamas" and circulated widely on social media in the wake of Hamas' Oct. 7 attacks in Israel.
The student-run SJC — which advocates "solidarity with Palestine," according to the claim — publicly denied involvement in the stickers and denounced their message on Nov. 18.
On Nov. 20, non-profit Hillel B.C. — which "promotes Jewish life on campus and beyond," according to its website — said in a public statement an "independent contractor" was responsible for the "offensive" stickers and had been fired.
A photo of an I Heart Hamas sticker posted on Instagram by UBC professor Vadim Marmer. Marmer deleted his post and issued an apology to student-run advocacy group UBC Social Justice Centre after learning they were not behind the post. The original Instagram post was picked up and shared on X, formerly Twitter, leading to threats against the students who run the organization. (Instagram)
"The defamatory statement was made with actual malice, knowing it was false, for the improper or ulterior motive of impugning SJC's reputation … and encouraging others to inflict on SJC and its leaders violence, vitriol, harassment, intimidation and hostility," reads the SJC's notice of civil claim filed in the Supreme Court of B.C. on Wednesday.
Hillel B.C., which is independent from UBC but located at the university, has not publicly named the individual.
"This incident has nothing to do with Hillel B.C.," executive director Rob Philipp said in a previous emailed statement to CBC News. "When Hillel found out about the activity it terminated its relationship with the independent contractor who was doing some unrelated part-time work for us."
However the lawsuit claims the stickers were created and distributed by an individual and "unknown others also acting on behalf of Hillel B.C.," and says the organization is vicariously liable.
On Thursday, Hillel said in a public statement it had not yet been served with court documents and could not comment on the lawsuit as it is currently before the courts.
Members from the university Jewish community are pictured gathered during a pro-Israeli rally organized by Hillel B.C. at the University of British Columbia on Wednesday, Nov. 1, 2023. (Ben Nelms/CBC)
"At a time when antisemitic hate crimes in British Columbia have surged, including on our campuses, we are deeply concerned that this lawsuit will result in a further reduction of safe spaces for Jewish students," read the statement.
Hillel B.C. assistant executive director Ohad Gavrieli declined to comment further in an emailed statement to CBC News.
CBC News has also reached out to the former contractor for comment.
The SJC, which is affiliated with UBC's student union the Alma Mater Society (AMS), says the sticker incident has caused its members to feel unsafe on campus due to harassment, co-plaintiff and SJC member Matthew Cheesman said Thursday.
"We are undergraduate students. We are just trying to finish our degrees and yet we are forced to defend our freedom of speech rights on the University of British Columbia campus," Cheesman said outside the B.C. Supreme Court in Vancouver.
Cheesman and the SJC are seeking both general, aggravated and punitive damages, as well as an injunction for Hillel and the individual to retract the alleged defamatory stickers.
"The SJC and Cheesman do not love, admire or support Hamas," reads the lawsuit. "They advocate for social justice, peace and human rights."
Calls for UBC to investigate
Representatives from the National Council of Canadian Muslims (NCCM), an independent advocacy group not affiliated with UBC, joined the plaintiffs Thursday to call for the university to investigate the incident.
Shawn Ullah, the NCCM's advocacy and government relations officer in B.C., said Thursday the lawsuit is the result of inaction by UBC that he says is putting the safety of Muslim and other racialized students at risk.
"Without a thorough investigation, we can never truly be sure that what happened [or if] possible acts of fraud will be fully prevented by the university leadership in the future," said Ullah.
"We call on UBC Vancouver's leadership to conduct a full investigation and to publicly commit to making sure that the campus is a safe place for all to engage in critical discussions regarding international human rights issues."
SJC member Matthew Cheesman, right, and Shawn Ullah, a B.C. representative for the National Council of Canadian Muslims, stand outside the B.C. Supreme Court on Thursday. (CBC News)
A spokesperson for UBC declined to comment on the proceedings as it is not named in the lawsuit.
"Both the AMS and Hillel B.C. are separate legal entities from UBC and are not under the management or control of UBC," wrote director of university affairs Matthew Ramsey in an emailed statement to CBC News.
Campus security reported the incident to RCMP and UBC is providing information "as requested," he said.
Karen Segal, the SJC and Cheesman's lawyer, says the lawsuit is about holding Hillel and UBC accountable for the alleged harms.
"Students must be free on campus to engage in political activism without being harassed and intimidated," said Segal.
CBC News asked Segal what evidence she has to suggest the individual named in the lawsuit was not acting independently from Hillel as the organization previously said in public statements in November and again on Thursday.
Segal declined to provide an immediate answer, saying that those details would be provided in court.