The Current

Update: Dalhousie university drops disciplinary action against student over Canada 150 post

Racism, free speech, disciplinary decisions and the controversy engulfing Dalhousie University.
Dalhousie University student Masuma Khan says she will be facing a disciplinary hearing about a Facebook post she made this summer. (CBC)


Dalhousie University is withdrawing disciplinary action against a student over a post she made to Facebook in the summer about Canada 150 celebrations.

In a statement released Wednesday, the university's vice-provost of student affairs said the incident "demonstrated the need for an open, thorough discussion on campus about the appropriate policies and processes to support freedom of expression."

Read story transcript

Dalhousie University has been consumed by a free speech debate for the past week.

It started just ahead of Canada Day, this past summer when Masuma Khan, a vice-president in the Dalhousie Student Union, put forward a motion that the student union not participate in the Canada 150 celebrations.

Khan said the motion was about showing solidarity with Indigenous peoples. It passed but not before facing some backlash on campus.

The criticism prompted Khan to take to Facebook with a post that contained some incendiary language, including "#white fragility can kiss my ass" and "#Your white tears aren't sacred, this land is."

Khan is now facing disciplinary action over the divisive Facebook post, raising questions about the state of free speech at Canadian universities.

"My post was really to get my feelings out there," Khan told The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti.

"My post doesn't say, 'If you're white, you can kiss my ass.' My post said white fragility, this concept, can kiss my ass, because every time I talk about racism, people want to believe it doesn't exist … this [white] fragility is so rampant in our society."

Michael Smith was a graduate student in Dalhousie's history department when he complained about the post.

"I was a student and this is how the VP views me …  if anyone who is white disagrees with her view on Canada Day, they can literally, she said it, kiss my ass." he said on The Current.

"This is supposed to be a place where intellectual debate is taking place. It's supposed to be a place where ideas should be respectfully challenged and discussed, but she is not open to that apparently."

James Turk sees this as a free speech issue — for Khan — and feels Dalhousie should be doing more to support its students' rights to speak their minds.

Turk directs the Centre for Free Expression at Ryerson University, and is the editor of Academic Freedom in Conflict: The Struggle Over Free Speech Rights in the University.

"I think the behaviour of the Dalhousie administration is reprehensible. It's undermining the raison d'etre of the university," Turk said.

"The university is … perhaps the primary place in a democratic society, where people can debate difficult issues, can examine, analyze, criticize from all perspectives, and their actions are to try to silence this student and her criticisms."

He said Dalhousie's policies on "unwelcome or persistent conduct" involving intimidating behaviour are so vague and overarching that they could effectively be used against anyone. 

"There's 1,000 things that happen to me every day that could make me feel intimidated or harassed," Turk said.

"That provision is their code, I would argue, is unconstitutional."

Turk said the situation at Dalhousie is emblematic of the challenges free speech is facing on campuses across the country.

Listen to the full conversation above.

This segment was produced by The Current's Willow Smith and Halifax network producer Mary-Catherine McIntosh.