Masuma Khan. Photo: Meghan Tansey Whitton / Facebook

Should the vice-president of the Dalhousie Student Union have faced even the whiff of disciplinary action from the university’s administration for a less than genteel Facebook exchange she had with some constituents?

The short answer is no.

The long answer is still no.


Let’s circle back for some context. On June 28, 2017, the Dalhousie Student Union voted overwhelmingly in favour of a motion put forward by Masuma Khan, the DSU’s vice president (academic and external). “At our most recent council meeting,” Khan explained in a thought-provoking but reasoned and explanatory Facebook post, “councilors voted to abstain from the Canada 150 celebrations:

“We recognize that Canada Day and the Canada 150 celebrations are an act of ongoing colonialism that glorifies continued theft from, and disenfranchisement of, the indigenous peoples of Turtle Island (Canada). Here in K’jipuktuk (Halifax) we study, work and live on unceded and unsurrendered Mi’kmaq territory. Mi’kma’ki is the traditional territory of the Mi’Kmaq people, who have lived on this land for over 13,000 years. We stand in solidarity with indigenous students and communities. We are committed to challenging and unlearning the narrative of Canada 150 and decolonizing education.”

Perhaps not surprisingly, not everyone agreed. The Nova Scotia Young Progressive Conservatives, for one, retorted with a rousing, if similarly reasonable, ideas-based Facebook post, sticking up for Canada Day and Canada 150, and arguing the student union should “prioritize advocating for student issues, not attacking Canada.”

“It is disappointing that the Dalhousie Student Union has voted to refuse to participate in any celebrations of Canada Day in our country’s 150th year. As a government-funded institution and as one that represents thousands of students of diverse views and backgrounds, the Dalhousie Student Union should prioritize advocating for student issues, not attacking Canada. Moreover, as an organization that represents many students from all over the world who are considering making Canada their home, the Dalhousie Student Union should be helping instill pride in our country, not boycott it on our most significant national holiday. The Dalhousie Young PCs strongly believe that the Dalhousie Student Union and its executive should re-evaluate what its goals are when it comes to advocating for students at Dalhousie University. This decision reflects poorly on not only the Union, but also the institution that is Dalhousie University.”

And so it began.

There is nothing novel about these ongoing, never-done debates over the proper role for university student governments: should they stick to the knitting of some narrowly circumscribed definition of “student issues,” or can they see themselves as legitimate players in the larger political debates of the day?

When I was a university student in the long-gone-and-occasionally-missed days before social media (before devices even!), we argued hotly over whether the Vietnam War or the October Crisis were fit subjects for student politicians to pronounce upon. If they dared, the Young Tories of their day were equally quick to engage. Debates were had, insults exchanged and, eventually, the world went on.

Much has changed since my student days, not the least of which is the ubiquity of social media, which can turn a local spat into an international incident with a few viral Tweets or Facebook posts.

To complicate matters, universities have carved out new and ever larger roles for themselves as the self-appointed keepers of campus safe spaces and definers of the limits of what is acceptable speech, roles for which they are ill-suited.

University codes of conduct, which generically prohibit “unwelcome or persistent conduct that the student knows, or ought to know, would cause another person to feel demeaned, intimidated or harassed,” will inevitably smack up against the academy’s ultimately more fundamental role as protector of free speech and encourager of vigorous debate.

Dalhousie University’s administration could have sidestepped this latest mess of their own creation by simply staying the hell out of a fight in which they do not belong. If the Young Tories or Michael Smith, the graduate student and teaching assistant in history who launched the official complaint about Khan’s subsequent Facebook post, wanted to whine to anyone, it should have been to their elected student council, of which Khan is a member and which was responsible for passing the motion in the first place.

Better, they could have continued to engage in the debate as adults.

There is no question Khan’s own since deleted response to the YPC’s post — “At this point, fuck you all. Be proud of this country? For what, over 400 years of genocide?” — seemed purposely designed to inflame and escalate.

So be it. That occasionally happens in debates over matters that matter. It’s called freedom of speech.

But if the hashtags she used to end her post — #unlearn150, #whitefragilitycankissmyass and #yourwhitetearsarentsacredthislandis — had been directed at Muslims or blacks instead, I have no doubt many of the same fair-weather free speechers who rallied to Khan’s defence under the guise of her right to speak without fetters would have been calling even more loudly for her firing or resignation, and demanding the university assume its in loco parentis duties and censure, as well as censor her.

Consider the 20 Dalhousie law professors who last week published an open letter in response to the Khan  case about the “university’s role in protecting political expression… The same values of truth, democracy, equality, and individual fulfillment which underpin [Canada’s constitutional] legal commitment to the protection of political speech inform the core mandate of universities, including Dalhousie University,” they wrote in an impassioned endorsement of free speech. “Indeed, it is difficult to imagine a context in which it is more critical to ensure that unpopular ideas, political perspectives, and contestation of dominant social, cultural and legal practices and norms are encouraged.”

My question is whether they would have been as quick, or as forceful in defending the freedom of speech of, say, white supremacists, or anti-abortionists, or climate change deniers, all of whom would also seem — rightly — to be purveyors of  “unpopular ideas, political perspectives, and contestation of dominant social, cultural and legal practices and norms” on university campuses these days.

Or does their support for freedom of speech come with the limiting asterisk noted in their letter: “speech which challenges us as a community to reflect upon our roles in colonialism, oppression of marginalized communities, and systemic racism.”

Khan offered her own answer to that question in an interview with CBC’s Mainstreet last week: “I think freedom of speech is important, but I don’t think freedom of speech is good for having supremacist values.”

That’s the problem with freedom of speech. It isn’t freedom if it isn’t free. Without asterisks.

Stephen Kimber is an award-winning writer, editor, broadcaster, and educator. A journalist for more than 50 years whose work has appeared in most Canadian newspapers and magazines, he is the author of...

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  1. I agree with free speech and I agree with the points raised by the students.
    I am, however, still opposed to the use of mindless vulgarity like “kiss my a**”. To me it stoops to the level of the mindless idiots who practice racism and moronic white supremacy. Once things like that and the “f” word enter the dialogue, I tube out. Sorry but I think she could have made her point equally and as powerfully without the gutter language.

  2. This piece is an American-style defense of freedom of speech. This right, in the Canadian constitution, is less absolute than in the American constitution, and balanced against competing interests via section 1 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. These balances include other public purposes (such as promoting the end of racism…) The American right to freedom of speech nevertheless has limits too. In any case, the university is not a government actor for most purposes so therefore is not held to this standard. Neither are individuals required to defend a “pure” free speech right.

    Rather, given the differential treatment of inflammatory speech between Khan and say, Dal Dentistry misogynists, this is a sexism, racism and power imbalance problem at issue here. Contrasting the defence of the speech of women and minorities in opposing their own oppression, to the defence of speech of dominant groups attacking those same women and minorities, obscures rather than enlightens. Do faculty need to raise their voices to protect dominant cultural groups at Dalhousie? No, because these groups already enjoy a tremendous amount of protection by members of their own dominant class.

    For example, rape speech was tolerated with no formal censure from a dominant group of men, at Dal Dentistry. All the while, actual women have to worry about rape and dehumanization. Please contrast that with a woman of color saying the F-word to a concept: white fragility. Whites do not have to worry about their/our fragility being raped. The targets of racism and sexism do in fact have to worry every day about our safety from dominant groups. This alone should be enough to understand why faculty is quite right to defend Khan, and also quite right if choosing to stand down for the Richard Spencers.

    1. In Kimber’s “what if?” scenario he advances the kind of false moral equivalency which Trump was accused of in his comments criticizing leftist protesters in Charlottesville. Thank you pamrubin for pointing out Kimber’s error.

  3. So, where is the context?I see Masuma Khan quoted for saying provocative things online and not a word about the vile rape threats and death threats aimed at her that some men feel very comfortable posting and sharing online for all to see.

    1. White men should just refrain from attacking the defenders of Masuma Khan. It would help. Thank you.

  4. Progressives brought this on themselves when they endorsed censorship of expressions they don’t like. It was inevitable these speech codes would boomerang against the very people they sought to protect.

    Thank you, Stephen, for taking a rare stand in support of a fundamental human right, one so many on the left are eager to jettison.

  5. An enlightened response by Stephen Kimber. The explosive quality of outrage-fueled debates is catalyzed by the social media. A university should steer clear if it can. If it gets involved too quickly it will rightly be perceived as being self-serving, or in the service of some special interest. It can protect the enlightenment ideals of critique and debate by slowing things down, not by a rush to judgment. Good comment by Nick on the “extra-legal” tendencies of our universities — as an institution in which judgments and calls to moral ideals are constantly being made by students and faculty, not to mention alumni, donors, et al., the university should beware of seeing itself as a place where a moral issue or debate can be decisively settled. A university should try as much as possible be a place for thought. In the end of course it also serves all kinds of interests, including its own, no getting around that. This Masuma Khan debate brings it all out.

  6. I’ve been paying close attention to free speech on campus since 2009 or so when St. Mary’s cancelled an anti-abortion speaker because she apparently posed a danger to the safety of the students. It’s not that I agreed with the speaker, but the argument that someone’s safety could be violated by someone with whom they do not agree having a talk on campus just doesn’t hold up to scrutiny.

    It’s of course wrong that Khan was subject to disciplinary procedures for what she said, but I think that the letter’s clause about “speech which challenges us as a community…” is pretty dishonest – it’s basically “speech for me but not for thee”. Like Khan said to CBC, freedom of speech isn’t for ‘supremacists’ – and presumably she’s the one who decides who a supremacist. It’s not a new playbook she’s reading from.

    Elite opinion in Western countries is dangerously out of sync with popular opinion, and I think one of the root causes is the extralegal censorship in institutions like universities. This is not a recent development – it started in the 1960s. The Internet has only made this worse. Right wing and left wing twitter are equally hermetically sealed from counterarguments and contraindications in a way that makes the John Birch society or The Weather Underground look like principled debate clubs.