Speaking Freely vs. Dignitary Harm: Balancing Students’ Freedom of Expression and Associational Rights with their Right to an Equitable Learning Environment


  • Elizabeth Brulé Queen's University


codes of conduct, equitable learning environments, freedom of expression, harmful speech


In this article, I examine the difficulty of using student codes of conduct and civility policies as a way to restrict harmful speech. I argue that policies used to monitor students’ non-academic behaviour provide administrators with a means to restrict and surveil students’ political advocacy work, especially marginalized students’ advocacy. Rather than providing a ‘safe’ learning environment, codes of conduct curtail students’ opportunities for freedom of expression and limits their ability for critical pedagogical engagement with controversial ideas. Drawing on case studies at Canadian universities, I illustrate the contradictory challenges that student activists encounter when attempting to balance principles of freedom of expression and principles of equity on university campuses. Rather than use codes of conduct, I argue that administrators should adopt criteria that help students identify and limit dignitary harms. In doing so, students will be better equipped to assess their expressive freedom and associational rights with the rights of others to an equitable learning environment. Moreover, such an approach represents a decolonial shift and promises to expand our narrow liberal conception of rights and ensure marginalized peoples’ voices and worldviews are heard.


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Author Biography

Elizabeth Brulé, Queen's University

Elizabeth Brulé is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Gender Studies, at Queen’s University, with a research focus in institutional ethnography, Indigenous feminist, anti-racist and anti-colonialist theory and activism. She is of Franco-Ontarian and Métis ancestry.






Special Section: Speaking Freely and Freedom of Speech