September 14, 2018

How To…

Dealing with in the Classroom

As education workers at the University of Toronto, one of the uglier and more difficult parts of our job is having to deal with racist, misogynistic, homophobic, transphobic, and Islamophobic comments and ideas masquerading as “free speech”. It often falls on us to decide where to draw the line between freedom of speech, intellectual inquisitiveness, and hate speech. 

Because UofT does not provide training for dealing with hate speech and harassment in the classroom, it is easy to feel helpless when it arises. While confronting such ideas is difficult to do, it is part of our job, whether it takes place in the physical classroom, the lab, over email, during office hours, or online in discussion forums; it is something we must take seriously. Whether hate speech is blatant, disguised as humour or unintended, the outcome is equally harmful.

CUPE 3902 wants you to know that you’re not alone. There are a number of resources at your disposal to deal with these unfortunate incidents if they occur. This FAQ is designed to let you know your rights as an education worker at the Uof T and to provide some guidance. Perhaps the most important thing to know is that, as a member of CUPE 3902, you have the right to work in a safe environment. This includes a workplace free of racism and other forms of hate speech. This right is enshrined in our Collective Agreements, and you are protected from any reprisals for choosing to exercise it.

If you have any questions about this, or want additional information, feel free to contact your CUPE 3902 Staff Representatives – Rebecca StrungTamara Williams, or Tiffany Balducci.

The UofT has its own Statement on Freedom of Speech  While it is purposefully open-ended, it does acknowledge the limits to freedom of speech on campus, stating that:

“Of necessity, there are limits to the right of free speech, for example, when members of the University use speech as a direct attack that has the effect of preventing the lawful exercise of speech by members or invited guests, or interfering with the conduct of authorized University business, the University may intervene. Similarly, although no member of the University should use language or indulge in behaviour intended to demean others on the basis of their race, ancestry, place of origin, colour, ethnic origin, citizenship, creed, sex, sexual orientation, handicap, age, marital status, family status, the receipt of public assistance or record of offence, the values of mutual respect and civility may, on occasion, be superseded by the need to protect lawful freedom of speech. However, members should not weigh lightly the shock, hurt anger or even the silencing effect that may be caused by use of such speech.”

Furthermore, the Ontario Human Rights Code supersedes the UofT’s commitment to academic freedom. Hate speech laws are in place in order to protect against harassment, racial discrimination, and assert the dignity and humanity of all people. If you have questions, or are unclear about what exactly constitutes free speech, feel free to visit the Ontario Human Rights Commission webpage.

  1. If possible in the circumstances, the best course of action is to use the situation as a teaching moment. As an educator, you have the opportunity to challenge and deconstruct these problematic statements. While this does not excuse or limit the harm inflicted, we need to remember that not all problematic comments come from a place of hatred or bigotry, but often from ignorance.

    While a direct, detailed response may not be possible given the dynamics of the situation, it is important to remember that we have a responsibility to challenge racism and hate speech as part of our own commitment to university policies. It is always important to be mindful of how the racist comments can impact the other students in the room – or the effect it can have on normalizing such ideas if left unchallenged. Even if the comment is not directed at you, you also have a responsibility to your students to correct or counter what was said.[1] 

  2. If the situation has escalated and is causing harm to the learning environment and other students, you have the right to ask the student to leave due to their disruptive and problematic behaviour. Be sure to notify the employing department right away, explaining the circumstances that led to the ejection of the student. Make sure to document the incident. [2]

  3. As a very last resort, if you believe that the conduct has the potential to lead to violence, you have the right to cancel the class/tutorial as an employee of the UofT. Again, be sure to notify the employing department right away, explaining the circumstances that led to the cancellation. As above, make sure to document the incident. If the employing department subjects you to any verbal or written discipline for exercising your right to a safe workplace, contact CUPE 3902 immediately (see contacts above).

  4. If the student refuses to leave, or if you fear for your students’ safety or your own, contact the Campus Security Urgent Hotline (416.978.2222). A note of caution: not all students’ interactions with campus police will be positive ones, and some students may have had negative experiences with police in the past. Marginalized communities experience regular harassment and discrimination by police in our city. Please consider the impact of calling campus police not only on the student being asked to leave, but on all of your students, especially those who have been affected directly by the hateful comments. The option to contact campus safety should be exercised only once all other options have been exhausted.

    [1] For suggestions on how to deal with inappropriate comments in the classroom, please see the resource prepared by UofT Phd Candidate and CUPE 3902 member Fady Shanouda.
    [2] For help documenting racist incidents, please see our resource: (include link here).

We have all been there. We all know it can be very difficult to respond appropriately in the moment to defend ourselves or others – and it is not until later when it sinks in that we think of what we might have done differently. If this is the case, take the time to think through an appropriate response for the next time you are in the classroom. As educators, we have a responsibility to address racism and other hate speech – because leaving it unchecked gives it a sense of legitimacy. 

Responding to these incidents after the fact can take several forms. For example, you can allot the opening minutes of the next class to address the issue, show a relevant film/interview/discussion on the topic that addresses key points, invite a qualified guest speaker to address the issue, ask the professor to address the issue in the classroom, etc. 

Any time you stand up for your rights against your colleagues or employer, it can be intimidating. The unfortunate thing is that you are probably not the first to experience this kind of behaviour, and unless action is taken, you are unlikely to be the last. Without being taken to task for racist and inappropriate behaviour, people are unlike to correct their behaviour.

As long as the offending comment took place within a workplace environment (i.e. a meeting, grading session, email, departmental function, etc.), it falls under workplace harassment, and you have the ability to fight it.

In addition to contacting the Union, you can challenge racism by making a complaint pursuant to the UofT’s Statement on Prohibited Discrimination and Discriminatory Harassment. If you would like more information before filing a complaint, you can contact the University’s Anti-Racism and Cultural Diversity Office.


If you have any comments, concerns, or want to get involved in fighting racism on campus, please get in touch with CUPE 3902 “Sick of Racism” campaign by clicking here to send us an email.