Protecting Freedom of Speech vs. Protecting Feelings of Students


Dalhousie Student Union rep sparks a debate over who to protect when it comes to free speech

            Dalhousie University has been under scrutiny as of late after being accused of violating free speech. This past summer Masuma Khan, Vice Present of the Dalhousie Students' Union, motioned for the school to not participate in Canada 150 celebrations out of solidarity with Indigenous people. When the motion passed, Khan was hit with a great deal of backlash on social media, with many saying a ban on Canada Day celebrations was unpatriotic.

            In response to the negative comments she was receiving, Khan made a Facebook post defending her motion that included hashtags that said, “white fragility can kiss my ass” and “your white tears aren’t sacred, this land is.” After student complaints about this post, Dalhousie filed a complaint against Khan, claiming she violated the school’s code of conduct by engaging in behavior that “would cause another person to feel demeaned, intimidated, or harassed.” After asking Khan to seek counselling and write a reflective essay as informal discipline for her post, which she declined to do, the Vice Provost Arig Shaibah proceeded with a formal discipline process.

            Masuma Khan’s post and the subsequent complaint filed against her has been polarizing to say the least. On one side, many feel her comment specifically targeted white students with the intent to disvalue their opinion as frail or weak based on their race. Others felt Khan’s “kiss my ass” comment was censoring anyone who disagreed with the Union’s decision to boycott the holiday. Some students also feel they should be allowed to celebrate their country without being shamed, and the ban on school involvement did not reflect the desire of the student body.

            On the other side, Masuma Khan has received a lot of support from people who see the school’s decision to file a complaint against her as a violation of free speech. 25 professors from Dalhousie’s Schulic School of Law wrote a letter urging the university to maintain an environment where political speech can flourish. The Ontario Civil Liberties Association also wrote a letter supporting Khan, as did students from the University of Western Ontario.

            Masuma Khan herself states that her motion and subsequent post were not made with the intent to hurt or offend white students, but out of a desire to align the Students' Union with the Indigenous communities who have been mistreated by the Canadian government for centuries.

            As a member of a minority herself, Khan describes her use of “white fragility” as the refusal to discuss racism out of fear that white people will be offended- an idea that she finds harmful to reconciliation. Since the school’s investigation into her comments, Khan has been subject to harassment online, threats, and islamophobia, including being told to “go back to her own country” and being called a terrorist.  

            As of October 25, Dalhousie and Vice Provost Arig Shaibah have decided to withdraw their complaint against Masuma Khan. Instead, Shaibah is launching a campus wide dialogue series on racism and free speech, hoping to continue the conversation. However, the tension still hangs in the community, begging the question, are universities still a safe place for open and honest debate?