Should your university get to ‘comment’ on your social media?

By: Winona Young

Masuma Khan, Dalhousie University student, came close to facing a disciplinary committee for her politically charged comments about Canada 150. Having moved the Dalhousie Student Union to abstain from planning or condoning Canada Day celebrations this year, Khan asserted that the event was “an act of ongoing colonialism.” Following that, Dalhousie graduate student in history, Michael Smith, filed a complaint to their university after her use of the hashtag #whitefragilitykissmyass.

Dalhousie originally acted to discipline Khan for her actions, but after notable public backlash against the school’s decision, they have withdrawn from that route and are now considering “ways to resolve the complaint outside of the regular senate disciplinary process,” as Arig al Shaibah, vice-provost of student affairs, told Huffington Post. This situation begs the question: do universities have a right to monitor and critique their students based on their social media?

With race being a very personal and political topic, does Khan, a Muslim, hijab-wearing woman, and a First Nations ally, have a right to be vocal about her political views? Does her university have a say in how she expresses her beliefs?

While Khan’s words were blunt and furious, they did not contain any active promise or threat to other students, specifically of any creed or race. Universities have no power to dictate how students ought to express their feelings, especially ones of injustice. To me, the only time a school should be censoring or censuring its students is when they jeopardize other students’ safety.

When I say that, I think of cases like Peter Cytanovic, a young male white student whose mid-protest photograph was the popular image for “Unite the Right” tiki torch protests in Virginia last August. As Quartz Media reports, the president of his university announced that while the university neither shares nor condones his actions, they “had no constitutional or legal right” to expel him, and they let him keep his job on campus.

It seems clear that political affiliations and after-school activities are considered off-limits grounds to some universities. But in Cytanovic’s case, his actions threatened the livelihood and atmosphere to students of colour. This ought to have been reported, not just to the university but to the police, to help protect those students.

If universities are to monitor their students’ media and expression, their primary motivation should be to help protect students, not to persecute them. Otherwise, universities have very little grounds to sift through students’ profiles.

These places of education need to promote learning, dialogue, and discussion. If or when they must intervene, they must look critically at the given situation and ask themselves how such comments negatively or positively affect their school environment. If schools were to really comb through social media profiles with pure intentions, would it incite any positive change, or would it result in more students on probation?

It appears to me that universities look for and penalize posts that may sully their image, rather than be attentive and listen to any truly critical comments. Students like Peter Cytanovic believe that their status as a student and pro-white protestor are separate, and conduct themselves as such, so the school turns a blind eye and does not assume responsibility for them.

Meanwhile, student council executive member Masuma Khan believes that her activism has a place within her school’s social commentary, so when she brings up uncomfortable dialogue and it is linked back to her university, she is punished. Unless universities are monitoring social media for benefit of their students’ safety and well-being, and not for their own sakes, they have little right to involve themselves in their students’ conversations.

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