Medical student expelled for refusing to change his personal beliefs

It is in totalitarian regimes, in which every aspect of life, including your private thoughts, is considered political, that they demand your very soul. And that is what has happened here.

Barbara Kay Montreal QC

If you represented a marketing firm hired by a political party to shine a positive light on your client's immigration-friendly policy, you'd be smart to personalize the message with an inspiring story of an immigrant who had benefited from the policy, and was in turn, as a model citizen, emerging as a productive, valuable asset to Canadian society.

You couldn't do better than a young man by the name of Rafael Zaki. Rafael is a Coptic Christian, whose parents emigrated with him from Egypt to escape systemic oppression of their religious beliefs, and breathe the default oxygen of freedom. Both parents have made a great success in the field of medicine and their son was poised to follow suit via the University of Manitoba's Max Rady College of Medicine (class of 2022).

Unfortunately you probably could not get the Zaki family to cooperate with your ad campaign today. Because Rafael Zaki has been expelled from the University of Manitoba's College of Medicine— on account of his personal beliefs.

Zaki's troubles began in Feb. 2019, when 18 anonymous complaints were filed against him, citing a few pro-life and pro-gun rights posts (the former a long essay he had written for his Sunday School) on his Facebook page. The anonymous complainants said the posts made them feel "unsafe." An investigation was launched, which led directly to a remediation process, during which Zaki was summoned to seven meetings with Dr. Ira Ripstein, the Max Rady College of Medicine associate dean for undergraduate medical education.

These meetings produced ten (!) written apologies by Zaki, urged on him by Dr. Ripstein as a way of avoiding disciplinary action— five to his fellow students and five to the faculty— for having caused offense through statement of his opinions. He pulled them from Facebook within 18 hours of the allegations.

Even then, Dr. Ripstein continued to side with students who claimed to feel unsafe with Zaki. According to Dr. Ripstein, the apologies were insufficiently remorseful and sincere, as they did not include testimony to a change in his beliefs. Indeed, they did not contain evidence of a change in his beliefs, because Zaki had not experienced a change in his beliefs. He continues to believe in the right to own arms, and he continues to believe abortion is a moral crime.

As Zaki writes in an affidavit eventually filed to the Court of Queen's Bench in Manitoba, "Being a Coptic Christian is the very essence of my being, and I cannot be separated from my faith." That is his Charter right. But apparently it is not considered to be his right at the University of Manitoba Max Rady College of Medicine. He was technically expelled from the College on Aug. 30, 2019 on grounds of "Student Non-Academic Misconduct and Concerning Behaviour Procedure." He was, however, allowed to continue attending classes until appeals were exhausted, because he was not actually considered a safety risk.

Zaki appealed. As noted in his affidavit, the University's policy on "Student Non-Academic Procedure" restricts it from regulating a student's social media unless "matters regarding the University are a significant focus of the communication," which they were not.

Zaki concedes that his Sunday School essay contains language that is blunt and colourful, "more in keeping with moral or philosophical debate." For example, he compares abortion to the Holocaust, a common trope amongst pro-life activists that in my expressed opinion is an argument that is not only logically flawed, but so off-putting in its extremism as to repulse the undecided reader rather than persuade. As a Jew, I am very offended by comparisons of abortion to the Holocaust (or the meat industry as in PETA ads), but as a classical liberal, I believe that in a free country, one should have the right to use a bad argument to make a moral case for those you consider to be victims of injustice. (For the record, nobody accused Zaki of anti-Semitism, and I would have objected if they had.)

The appeal failed. In July 2020, the University Discipline Committee determined that on the balance of probabilities, Zaki had committed an act of Non-Academic Misconduct in the form of professional misconduct. The Committee noted there was sufficient evidence to conclude the statements were "misogynistic and hostile to women," which had a "negative impact on the learning and work environment." The Committee "determined that a change in the Appellant's behaviour was essential in order to meet the professionalism standards set by the UGME policies." At this point, Zaki was expelled altogether.

Zaki then retained counsel, Carol Crosson of Crosson Constitutional Law, and in August filed a Notice of Application for Judicial Review at the Manitoba Court of Queen's Bench, and went before the Court on a motion for an injunction to be allowed to continue his studies until his judicial review application is determined. The Court denied his motion. This is where things stand now.

A few elements leap out at the attentive reader of the case. First, the College ignored several  Student Non-Academic "Procedure" requirements. They failed to inform the Vice-Provost of a pending investigation; they failed to provide Zaki with the complaints against him; and they failed to provide the identities of those who had lodged them, all running foul of the Procedure's obligation to provide Zaki with "access to all documentary and other evidence…and knowing the identity of the complainants." To this day, Zaki has not seen the names of the actual complaints, which violates the foundational, age-old principle, audi alteram partem, the right to know the case against you.

Then there is the alleged extraordinarily unprofessional behaviour of Dr. Ripstein, who was involved as a principal in decision-making at every stage of the case up to the last appeal– effectively acting as investigator, prosecutor and judge. In his affidavit, Zaki states that during the course of his remediation, Dr. Ripstein's own fiercely held views on guns and abortion inspired alleged further wild accusations, cut from whole cloth, against Zaki.

According to Zaki, Dr. Ripstein said that because Zaki holds a belief in the right to bear arms and the right to life, "I must support shooting up abortion clinics, support rape at gunpoint and support shooting those of a higher socioeconomic status." To all of these suggestions, Zaki says he voiced a horrified "No!" Zaki says he was also accused of being homophobic, transphobic, and racist, all without any evidence.

This is shocking behaviour, if true, suggesting a revulsion for Zaki's views so extreme it erupted into hatefulness toward the holder of the views. Hateful is not too strong a word to describe a prosecutor who attempts to elicit confessions of thoughtcrimes that will brand the accused not only as someone with incorrect opinions, but as an enemy of the people.

Suppression of politically incorrect opinions by university authorities is nothing new. Demand to withdraw allegedly offensive speech from public circulation is not new. Compelled speech— as in diversity, equity and inclusion statements on academic grant applications, for example— is also not new.

But a demand that an accused person must actually change or declare against his will that he has changed his private, non-hateful beliefs as a condition for re-admittance to institutional standing: It seems to me we are in very ugly new territory here. In authoritarian regimes, they "only" ask for your political obedience; in Zaki's case, the apologies for giving offence with a promise to keep his opinions to himself hereafter would have sufficed. It is in totalitarian regimes, in which every aspect of life, including your private thoughts, is considered political, that they demand your very soul. And that is what has happened here.

Bear in mind that Zaki's beliefs are held by at least hundreds of thousands of ordinary Canadian citizens as well as many millions of Americans. A certain percentage of the population holding these beliefs are bound to be doctors, whose patients are unaware of, and certainly unaffected by them. To my knowledge, none of those doctors practising today was ever, when a medical student, interrogated on those beliefs by a faculty member and forced to apologize for or change them, let alone expelled for them.

Can anyone reading this example of unbridled bullying by an authority figure with power over a student imagine even the most rabidly abortion-friendly and gun-hostile Democrat senator putting these abhorrent suggestions to now-confirmed Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett in her Senate hearings, even though she holds the exact same pro-life views as Rafael Zaki, and— obviously— upholds the Second Amendment? Of course not. The Democrat senators grilling Barrett had no great love for her or her views, but they knew better than to cross the threshold between a hearing and an Inquisition on defensible opinions shared by a great swath of the American people.

If true, these allegations portray the entire process as a kangaroo court straight out of a Soviet show trial handbook. To top it off, Dr. Ripstein's daughter was in Zaki's class, and rumoured to be one of the complainants, a factor that would cry out for his recusal in the affair, yet Dr. Ripstein claimed he "was not informed" of his daughter's involvement. Uh huh. Naturally, I sent a media query off to Dr. Ripstein to ask for confirmation or denial of these allegations, and naturally— through an underling— Dr. Ripstein said he could not comment on matters currently in active litigation.

Zaki's affidavit includes a litany of negative consequences arising from the College's condemnation of him for his beliefs and from his subsequent expulsion. His reputation will suffer permanent damage; his classmates are shunning him; he may lose an entire year of study, which will have a huge impact on his ability to learn and to provide healthcare to patients. In short, "I believe and very much fear that that failure for me to resume studies will delay my achievement, render valueless my previous success and even foreclose my further university education."

And then there is this, which ought to make the College of Medicine and in fact the University of Manitoba hang their heads in shame: "Already, my parents and I have had discussions about whether Canada values us. Friends from church have also talked to me about whether Canada is still a safe country for Coptic believers. It would be tragic if Coptic believers, having been pushed out of the Middle East for having non-approved beliefs, are also pushed out of Canada for having non-approved beliefs."

If only Rafael Zaki had thought of exercising his right to tape those seven "re-education" interviews with Dr.Ripstein, as then-grad student Lindsay Shepherd taped her single revealing interrogation with her browbeating academic overlords at Wilfrid Laurier University in 2017. Public exposure of Shepherd's tape turned a private act of academic bullying into a national scandal. In my opinion, this ought-to-be scandal is even worse than the Shepherd affair.

I hope news of this deplorable affair will make its way to the Board of Governors and to the alumni associations of the University of Cairo— sorry, Manitoba. Their alma mater is in dire need of "remediation" regarding the first principles of democracy and of all Canadians', old and new, Charter right to freedom of conscience and expression.


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