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Controversies on American campuses used to justify censorship of pro-independence sentiments at Hong Kong universities

By December 4, 2017

Over the past few months, the limits of students’ free speech rights have been at the center of debate in Hong Kong after students at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong University, and Education University of Hong Kong seeking to express their support for the Hong Kong independence movement were censored. Some students even protested for independence and free speech at their graduation ceremonies. In response to these controversies, the South China Morning Post’s Alex Lo dismissed the argument of a Harvard professor that these universities are acting illiberally by pointing out that American universities, including Harvard itself, don’t have a perfect record on free speech.

In early September, banners showing support for Hong Kong independence and jailed activists from the city appeared throughout Hong Kong campuses, including one posted by the Chinese University of Hong Kong Student Union at the Democracy Wall, a message board the Union manages.

Au Tsz-ho, president of the Union, explained that he’d heard “rumors” students put up posters supporting “political prisoners” on CUHK’s campus and added that he was “happy that the students took action on a cause they believed in, and hope[d] that other new students will also do their part to fight for what is right.”

CUHK administrators, however, were less thrilled, and quickly removed the pro-independence banners. CUHK vice chancellor Joseph Sung offered the following justification for the banners’ removal:

“Freedom of speech is a cornerstone of the university, and every member of the university should have the freedom to express any idea,” Sung said. “This is not to say that the exercise of this freedom should be boundless. Indeed, freedom of speech should be premised that it will not violate the law and it will not intrude any other person’s dignity or rights.”

“The Basic Law stipulate[s] that Hong Kong is an inalienable part of People’s Republic of China. The Chinese University reiterates that the university is against the notion of Hong Kong independence. We do not want our campus [to] turn into a place for different political groups to spread their propaganda. This will only ruin the peaceful environment in which our teachers and students pursue knowledge.”

So when, exactly, does a permissible “idea” become impermissible “propaganda”? When those in power disagree with it?

Vice Chancellor Sung also demanded that the Student Union remove the pro-independence banners, and warned that administrators would take them down otherwise. They made good on that threat.

In response to the censorship controversies, Harvard University professor William Kirby — who has served in an advisory capacity at the University of Hong Kong — spoke to the South China Morning Post last week in support of students’ right to engage in political speech on campus:

“At a place like Harvard, anyone can invite anybody to give a speech … it’s a mistake to keep people from speaking,” he said.

“We insist that any point of view can be given and of course any point of view can be criticised. However, we do not allow people to incite violence and we insist that the dialogue be civil.”

[…]

He said he was in China four years ago when the central government issued guidelines to mainland universities on seven topics not to be talked about, including civil society and freedom of speech.

“A great university must be a place where there is not even one question, let alone seven, that cannot be discussed,” Kirby said.

South China Morning Post senior writer Alex Lo responded the next day to what he called Kirby’s “lofty sentiment” and “moment of moral exuberance.” According to Lo, Kirby’s support of students’ right to protest at Hong Kong campuses is belied by the censorship that takes place on American campuses, including Harvard.

Lo pointed to Harvard’s revocation of admission offers to students who had posted offensive memes in a private Facebook group and to the withdrawal of a Visiting Fellow title to Chelsea Manning after outrage from the intelligence community, two decisions which earned criticism from FIRE. Lo also directly cited FIRE, calling attention to the prevalence of disinvitations on American campuses more broadly.

Lo is quite right to point out that illiberal, and often unconstitutional, censorship occurs on American campuses. But Lo appears to find this censorship to be a practice to praise rather than avoid, claiming that an expressive “free-for-all” has no place on campus. Lo concludes that, while Hong Kong independence is “fair game for rational discussion,” administrators shouldn’t allow “protest”:

But when students move from discussion to protest, such as plastering public places with posters advocating independence, and physically intimidating mainland students by screaming obscenities, university administrators have the right and duty to intervene and halt such activities.

To be clear, censorship in one place is not a valid justification for censorship in another. An illiberal act does not become less so simply because it’s repeated enough times. This is a poor excuse used by those whose best defense of censorship is only that others have engaged in it as well. Count me unimpressed.

If opponents of Hong Kong independence thought it to be such an obviously wrong-headed political movement, they could easily defeat its proponents by debating them, rather than censoring them.

But as long as support for censorship exists, so will cheap whataboutism like Lo’s. What’s the best defense against it? Giving censorship whataboutists less material to draw upon. It’s up to universities — especially those bound by the First Amendment in the United States, or those bound by free speech commitments — to refuse censorship and set a standard for others to follow.

Moral of the story: We need to be careful about the free speech norms we set. What’s perceived as a small, inconsequential act of censorship here today could be used to justify censorship of political speech elsewhere tomorrow.