Social Justice Centre sues Hillel BC and former contractor for defamation

The UBC Social Justice Centre (SJC) has filed a lawsuit against Hillel BC Society, alleging Hillel's former contractor defamed them by distributing I [heart] Hamas stickers with the SJC's logo posted around campus in November.

Images of the stickers spread widely on social media after November 18, 2023. The SJC denied making them, and Hillel BC wrote an "independent contractor" formerly associated with the organization had distributed them on their Instagram two days later, but did not name the contractor.

Hillel is a non-profit which aims to promote Jewish life on campus. It holds a lease for Hillel House on UBC campus, but is not affiliated with the university.

The suit alleges an individual contractor and "unknown others" distributed the stickers in their capacity as Hillel employees with intent to harm the SJC. The suit argues the stickers lowered the organization “in the esteem of the public” and led to the undermining of “the credibility of the SJC in the advocacy activities.”

Representatives from the National Council of Canadian Muslims (NCCM), the SJC and the legal team hosted a press conference in front of the BC Supreme Court today regarding the suit.

“SJC's reputation was horribly damaged through an act of defamation,” said Shawn Ullah, advocacy officer at NCCM.

Matthew Cheesman, an undergraduate student, spoke at the press conference and listed alongside the SJC as a plaintiff in the court filing. The lawsuit describes Cheesman as a coordinator who has previously acted as a “spokesperson for the SJC in media and public activities.”

Karen Segal, a member of the plaintiff’s legal counsel, said the stickers "caused [SJC organizers] harm, and jeopardized their safety."

The plaintiffs are seeking an injunction for the defendants to retract their defamatory statement and desist defamation alongside general, punitive and aggravated damages.

"This claim seeks to hold accountable the organizations and individuals who inflicted that harm,” said Segal.

Hillel BC did not respond to a comment request from The Ubyssey, but in an Instagram post, the organization wrote it “​​cannot comment on the specifics as the matter is currently before the courts” and the organization has “not yet been served with court documents.”⁠

Hillel maintained the contractor was acting independently, and Segal declined to share more information when asked about the existence of evidence showing otherwise.

In January, NCCM released an open letter asking UBC to further investigate the stickers.

At the press conference, Cheesman said the university administration fostered “a culture in which their students on their campus can be defamed without fear of reprisal” and called on UBC to “conduct a full investigation.”

“That is why we're gathered at the courthouse today,” said Cheesman.

UBC said it will not be commenting on the court proceedings as it is not named in the documents, but "is providing information to RCMP as requested" for any investigation.  

The Ubyssey reached out to the independent contractor but did not receive a response.