Ontario Civil Liberties Association accuses Dalhousie of censorship over 'white fragility' investigation
Masuma Khan poses in this undated handout photo. A Dalhousie University student is under investigation for an online post she made related to Canada 150 celebrations. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO - Meghan Tansey Whitton
HALIFAX — A Canadian civil liberties group is accusing Dalhousie University of censoring the political expression of a student leader under investigation for her social media comments.
In a letter to Dalhousie president Richard Florizone, the Ontario Civil Liberties Association says the university is using its disciplinary powers to suppress freedom of speech.
The group is calling on Dalhousie to repeal its policies, which the association says are inconsistent with Canada’s core values of freedom of thought and expression.
Masuma Khan, a member of the student council executive, faced a backlash for urging the Dalhousie Student Union to abstain from Canada 150 celebrations in a show of solidarity with Indigenous Peoples.
In a Facebook post, the Nova Scotia Young Progressive Conservatives reacted by saying the student executive should help “instill pride in our country” rather than push for a boycott of a national holiday.
Khan responded with profanity, questioning why she should be proud of colonization and “over 400 years of genocide,” ending with a hashtag that referred to “white fragility.”
Her comments prompted a formal complaint from another student alleging she discriminated against white people.
But the civil liberties group says social media posts are a form of public speech in the so-called digital public square.
“They are off-campus activities as much as a debate in any public venue would be,” Joseph Hickey, executive director of the Ontario Civil Liberties Association, said in the letter.
“We believe that universities have no business interfering with the conduct of its students at such public off-campus venues,” he said. “The legitimate desire for a functional learning environment ought not to be used as a smokescreen to stifle political debate and silence dissent.”
Hickey added: “Dalhousie University must 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.”
Arig al Shaibah, Dalhousie’s vice-provost of student affairs, said in a statement that the university’s code of conduct allows students to raise concerns about behaviour they feel negatively impacts their learning environment and experience.
“With complaints of this nature, we engage in efforts to resolve issues through informal, educational and conversational means,” she said last week. “If individuals involved are not agreeable to informal means to resolve matters, the code dictates that the matter must be referred to the senate discipline committee for a hearing.”