Nova Scotia

Dalhousie urged to let political speech 'flourish' amid Facebook post controversy

Dalhousie law professors and senators are among those voicing support for the student who is facing disciplinary action over a Facebook post that expressed her frustration with Canada 150 celebrations.

University pursuing disciplinary action against student who wrote 'white fragility can kiss my ass'

Masuma Khan says she wasn't happy her case was discussed at a Dalhousie senate committee meeting, but was glad to hear some faculty speak in support of her. (CBC)

Dalhousie law professors and senators are among those voicing support for Masuma Khan, the Dalhousie student who is facing disciplinary action over a Facebook post that expressed her frustration with Canada 150 celebrations.

In the summer, Khan, a vice-president of the Dalhousie Student Union, brought forward a motion for the DSU not to participate in Canada 150 celebrations. The motion passed and there was considerable backlash, which Khan responded to in a since-deleted Facebook post. With hashtags, she wrote "white fragility can kiss my ass. Your white tears aren't sacred, this land is."

The university investigated following a complaint from a student and proceeded with a formal discipline process after Khan declined a proposed informal resolution — undergoing counselling and writing a reflective essay.

Code of conduct complaint

During a Dalhousie senate meeting Monday afternoon, Janice Graham, a professor in the pediatrics department, contrasted the school's response to Khan to the 2014 dentistry scandal where male students who participated in a misogynistic Facebook page underwent restorative justice.

"It's inexplicable for Masuma Khan to be facing the threat of double victimization by a Dalhousie disciplinary action committee, a punishment that was sidestepped by male dentistry students despite offences that made senator Khan's excitable speech pale in comparison," she told the meeting. 

Double standard

Graham highlighted a double standard in the university's approach to discipline, citing the community's outrage in response to students, the majority of whom were white, who partied in the streets during homecoming celebrations

She said Dalhousie is failing to "respond appropriately and effectively to structural imbalances that continue to plague this university."

"We need to question an administration that seems more concerned with frat recruitment than scholarship," she said. 

Janice Graham, a professor in the pediatrics department, says it is 'inexplicable' that Dalhousie is pursuing disciplinary action against Khan. (CBC)

Receiving death threats

Khan, who is a vice-president of the Dalhousie Student Union and in the school's senate, said after her case became public last week she received death threats.

Following the Canada 150 motion, she said, she received violent messages and brought them to the administration, but didn't feel the school was taking the issue seriously enough or factoring it into the complaint against her. 

On Monday she said she didn't feel comfortable that her case came up at the meeting at all and was concerned that it allowed the university to "justify" its actions toward her.

The school has protected rape culture "over marginalized students who are here trying to decolonize this institution and to talk to each other about white supremacy and how that affects their daily lives," she told CBC after the senate meeting.  

'White fragility' comment not the problem

In a statement issued Monday afternoon which she read during the meeting, Dalhousie's vice-provost of student affairs, Arig al Shaibah, said the case is being considered due to the section of the school's code of conduct related to "unwelcome or persistent conduct that the student knows, or ought to reasonably know, would cause another person to feel demeaned, intimidated or harassed." 

Dalhousie University's code of conduct says students cannot make others feel demeaned, intimidated or harassed. (CBC)

The school's code also says nothing in it "shall be construed to ... inhibit freedom of speech" but al Shaibah said the complaint was not proceeding because of that section and that a reference to "white fragility" alone wouldn't be an issue. 

She said she hopes the senate committee considers the charter values when it weights the evidence in Khan's case. If that committee finds there was a violation, al Shaibah said she is recommending "non-punitive educational/learning opportunities."

Protection of political speech

Khan's case has prompted several letters of support from groups that say Dalhousie shouldn't stifle or punish freedom of expression.

On Monday, a group of 25 professors from the Schulich School of Law signed a letter imploring that the university's senate "not see its role as to police and censor the tone of our community's political speech." 

The letter from the majority of Dalhousie's full-time law faculty says it is crucial for the university to provide a community where "political speech can flourish" in order to be inclusive, respectful and tolerant. 

"Expression which challenges majoritarian views, traditions, and practices that have caused harms to marginalized and oppressed minorities lies at the very core of Canada's constitutional commitment to the protection of political speech," the letter says. 

'Unacceptable precedent' 

In a separate letter, the Society of Graduate Students at Western University said the "attack on academic and personal freedom at a Canadian university sets an unacceptable precedent." 

The society's executive sent a letter to students and Dalhousie president Richard Florizone saying Dalhousie's actions were "an overreaction" and it was "shocking" that the university was taking such a different approach than it did to the dentistry scandal.

The Ontario Civil Liberties Association asked Dalhousie to "refrain from using the blunt tool of student discipline for indoctrinating students in what to think and feel, and instead must allow open and public debate on controversial matters," the group's letter said. 

The Society for Academic Freedom and Scholarship, an organization with board members from universities across Canada, wrote to Florizone asking that Dalhousie revise its code of conduct so that "no longer can be used to violate freedom of expression."

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Elizabeth McMillan is a journalist with CBC in Halifax. Over the past 15 years, she has reported from the edge of the Arctic Ocean to the Atlantic Coast and loves sharing people's stories. Please send tips and feedback to

With files from Michael Gorman