To hone their writing skills, students are taught to consider their audience, whether that is a single professor, prospective employers, schoolchildren, or the general public. The audience determines the words writers use, the arguments they make, and the style they adopt.
But in today’s universities, another audience looms in the minds of students and professors — an audience they do not seek out, but who nevertheless is deeply interested in what they have to say. Between the ever-growing threat of global authoritarianism and the internet’s omnipresent role in higher education, academics around the world are faced with the reality that scholarly discussions could take place not just in front of classrooms and peers, but under the watchful eyes of surveillance and censorship bodies. The threat is severe. Professors teaching sensitive subjects walk a tightrope: their class material may be legal to discuss in the confines of their physical classrooms in Cambridge or Palo Alto, but may carry the risk of state investigation and imprisonment elsewhere.
Authoritarianism is here to stay and, to a certain extent, online education may be, too.
Campuses, including those in the United States, are operating in an environment of constantly evolving challenges to speech — from Zoom’s removal of users at China’s request to faculty efforts to protect students against violating Hong Kong’s new national security law. University leadership needs to understand its role in a world where internet history could leave permanent trails of speech for authoritarians to track.
As campuses utilize imperfect online services for classes during the COVID-19 pandemic and China continues its campaign to control global speech, colleges must ask themselves an increasingly urgent question: What is the state of higher education if the internet is the new campus and authoritarianism can extend everywhere?
American universities’ policing of speech
The threats that unfurled throughout the last year did not appear in a vacuum. Rather, concerns about campus free expression and academic freedom are centuries old and over the past decade, online speech and social media platforms have become one of the primary battlegrounds for administrative overreach and punishment.
In February, FIRE filed a lawsuit against the University of Tennessee in response to its repeat investigations of pharmacy graduate student Kimberly Diei for what administrators deemed “crude” and “sexual” social media posts. Last year, FIRE defended Fordham University student Austin Tong, who was punished for two Instagram posts. One criticized what Tong called “the nonchalant societal reaction” from Black Lives Matter about the death of David Dorn, a retired St. Louis police captain killed in the unrest following George Floyd’s murder. In the second, Tong — who emigrated from China as a child — posted a photo of himself holding a legally-obtained gun off campus, with the caption “Don’t tread on me” and a reference to the anniversary of the Tiananmen massacre. These are only two of many recent administrative efforts to punish students’ controversial internet speech.
We are in a new era of threats to free speech. It is time our universities start acting like it.
Heightened scrutiny of student speech does not begin when students enter adulthood and matriculate into college. A case before the Supreme Court of the United States, Mahanoy Area School District v. B.L, centers on a high school student who was kicked off of her junior varsity cheerleading squad for sharing a photo on her personal Snapchat captioned, “Fuck school fuck softball fuck cheer fuck everything.” From the moment students sign up for Instagram or TikTok, school administrators are prepared to punish them for what they post.
Faculty have fared poorly, too. At institutions like the University of Kansas, Drexel University, the University of Rhode Island, Rutgers University, Babson College, and Collin College, professors have found themselves under investigation, and sometimes out of a job, for social media posts. And while administrators target community members with punishment for controversial posts, many universities employ blocking tools to scrub their Facebook and Twitter pages of unfavorable commentary, like advocacy of unions or criticism of universities’ treatment of animal rights.
A widespread campus crackdown
While educational institutions across the United States have policed internet speech, vigilantes, university leadership, and heads of state around the world have perpetrated widespread attacks on academic freedom. Former Special Rapporteur David Kaye detailed this distressing account of the state of global academic freedom in a report presented to the United Nations’ General Assembly in October.
“Academic freedom depends not only on institutional autonomy, but also the existence of protected spaces,” said Kaye. “Before the pandemic, we saw increasing efforts to limit the autonomy of universities and other research institutions. We saw this in authoritarian environments like Turkey, where the government took the role of hiring and firing, and in democratic ones like the United States, where the Trump administration put pressure on universities in the context of public protest, speaker events, and so forth.”
Kaye accounted for a number of ways authorities, non-state actors, and sometimes institutions themselves encroach upon the right to academic freedom, including acts or threats of violence, travel restrictions, internet blackouts, and more. Turkey, India, Pakistan, and others warranted extended discussion for their campaigns against academic freedom. Discussing the United States, the report noted that the “willingness of universities to submit to public pressure can erode academic freedom and freedom of expression” and that “such a dynamic may lead to a culture of repression and self-censorship, where restrictive measures against academic staff are guided by outside pressure rather than academic achievements and activities.”
Higher education, including in the United States, was already experiencing a variety of serious threats to expressive freedoms by 2020. But two new factors emerged last year that drastically worsened the state of higher education: the switch to online learning and aggressive authoritarian overtures against dissent, primarily from China.
COVID creates the online push
Colleges are, of course, not to blame for the move to online learning. COVID-19 largely left college administrations no better choice than to move classes to online platforms and graft the campus experience to the internet as best as they could. While higher education faced the same challenge as many other industries — adapt online or else — the challenges that accompanied it were more complex simply because of the nature of higher education. In an environment in which internet speech already attracted punishment for students and faculty, COVID-19 suddenly forced most speech, whether conversations between students, term paper submissions, or in-class debates, online.
For civil liberties advocates, it was a stark reminder of the potential for individual threats to freedom of expression to drastically worsen when paired with a crisis.
This alone would spell trouble for higher education. But it occurred alongside an increasingly sophisticated global trend of authoritarianism, creating a recipe for possible disaster as the academy’s migration online opened up significantly more space for authoritarian governments to fill.
“The move to virtual space increased the opportunities for interference,” Kaye explains. “Government surveillance suddenly became harder to detect when classes and work product were online. Trolling and intimidation almost certainly had an impact in some virtual academic spaces, with the possibility of self-censorship probably greater than in the physical classroom.”
And make no mistake: The state of freedom is worsening. Freedom House’s report, Freedom in the World 2021, warns that “the long democratic recession is deepening” as we mark 15 years of declining global freedom. Repression worsened in 73 countries, but the most distinct threats to freedom emerged from China.
China’s expanding censorship and the national security law
Indeed, the story of COVID-19 cannot be told without discussing how its early stages were shrouded in secrecy, cover-ups, and threats against journalists and doctors in China. Li Wenliang — the doctor threatened by police for attempting to warn colleagues about what he suspected was a new SARS-like virus in December 2019 and who would die due to the same virus weeks later — was not the only whistleblower silenced in China for speaking out about COVID-19. In the weeks after then-unidentified COVID-19 began to spread, authorities in China arrested or investigated at least dozens of people, including doctors, for “spreading rumors” about a new viral outbreak. Alongside threats against individual doctors and citizens, China’s massive information bureaucracy worked feverishly to ensure that it maintained control over internet conversations about COVID-19 and that China’s successes were praised and its failures minimized.
Only months later, China would again escalate its censorship campaign and set off far-reaching consequences beyond its borders. On June 30, 2020, China administered the national security law, a new advancement in its campaign to silence Hong Kong’s protest and pro-democracy movement. The law targets supposed separatism, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign countries, vague terms that allow Beijing total authority to suppress dissent. The cost of speaking out? In severe cases, life imprisonment.
Hong Kong swiftly changed after the implementation of the national security law, but in recent weeks the decline has significantly worsened. On Feb. 28, authorities charged 47 figures from Hong Kong’s democracy movement with “conspiracy to commit subversion” for their involvement in an informal political primary and polling in July. In early March, Hong Kong’s Secretary for Education Kevin Yeung warned that universities would be expected to incorporate the national security law into their curricula and “prevent and suppress” violations of the law. In other words, students and faculty should expect to feel the full force of the national security law at Hong Kong’s universities — for some academics, the pressure is already there.
The immediate effects are devastating, as will be the long-term impacts of the most populous country in the world escalating its crackdown on dissenters. But the national security law does more. Its Article 23 asserts that the law applies “outside the region by a person who is not a permanent resident of the region.” Even if a student or professor is located outside of Hong Kong or mainland China and violates the vague wording of the national security law, Beijing could still be watching for perceived offenses to punish. For universities — home of academic discussion and research about politics, healthcare, science, religion, and the economy, all delicate topics in China — this serves a massive blow.
As campuses moved online amidst a growing global crackdown on dissent in which authoritarians have greater access to people’s thoughts and words than ever before, threats converged to create the potential for a new era of campus suppression.
Zoom’s role in the new era of campus censorship
When campuses scrambled to continue classes last spring while COVID-19 spread rapidly in the United States, many universities joined other industries in turning to video communication services, Zoom especially. For its part, Zoom encouraged academia’s use of its service. The company’s website boasts that more than 10,000 schools use Zoom and shares glowing testimonials from universities.
But it did not take long for activists and dissidents to warn that the biggest concerns about Zoom might not be distracting virtual backgrounds or pets interrupting meetings. In June, Zoom admitted that, in accordance with requests from Chinese officials, the company had closed accounts of a handful of users located outside of mainland China after they hosted events commemorating victims of the Tiananmen Square Massacre. In a statement, the company wrote: “Just like any global company, we must comply with applicable laws in the jurisdictions where we operate. When a meeting is held across different countries, the participants within those countries are required to comply with their respective local laws.”
What is the state of higher education if the internet is the new campus and authoritarianism can extend everywhere?
Zoom appeared to allow one of the most unfree countries to set the standard for the rest of the world on its service until it quickly issued another statement, acknowledging some ways in which it “fell short” and confirming that “[g]oing forward Zoom will not allow requests from the Chinese government to impact anyone outside of mainland China.” But too many questions remained unanswered.
FIRE, joined by the National Coalition Against Censorship and PEN America, wrote a letter asking Zoom to explain how universities can rely on the service to provide education across borders — including to hundreds of thousands of international students who could be unable to leave China due to travel restrictions — with no certainty about when Zoom will remove students or educators in China from virtual classrooms. Zoom ignored the questions, perhaps because the company had bigger problems on its horizon. In December, federal prosecutors unsealed a complaint accusing a Zoom executive based in China of working directly at the beck and call of Chinese officials to target users, even framing them for supporting terrorism or sharing child pornography.
Zoom’s failings, both to foresee this challenge and adequately prepare for it, brought to light the tenuous nature of conducting higher education online and across borders. In doing so, universities need to rely on third party services to conduct classes and other academic offerings, services which likely do not consider freedom of expression to be a higher priority than their bottom line. (We need only look at Disney, the NBA, gaming companies, Hollywood, and other industries eager to retain access to China’s markets to see how this plays out.)
The prospect that Zoom could be lobbied by governments to remove students from class discussions that touch upon sensitive political issues was made even more serious by concurrent government regulations that would have forced Chinese students studying in the United States to return to China for class. Last July, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement announced that international students would be required to leave the country if their fall classes would be held entirely online, a measure many universities were undertaking at the time in light of COVID. Suddenly, students who were outside of China’s legal jurisdictions were thrust back to a country that treats political speech — past or present — as an offense punishable by a prison sentence.
Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology launched a lawsuit challenging the implementation of the policy, and FIRE filed an amicus curiae brief in their lawsuit. As FIRE explained, potentially forcing hundreds of thousands of students to leave the United States and return to their home countries to take online classes would have dramatically increased the likelihood of interference in classrooms from China’s Great Firewall or other countries’ internet censorship and surveillance systems. Both students and faculty would feel the pressure to self-censor either to protect themselves or their peers.
For universities, where international students have become an increasingly important source of revenue, this could have been a damaging financial hit. Students might understandably choose to transfer rather than take online classes in their home countries. And for civil liberties advocates, it was a stark reminder of the potential for individual threats to freedom of expression to drastically worsen when paired with a crisis.
However, it would be a mistake to assume that China is the only weight pressing on Zoom executives’ minds. This September, Zoom acceeded to demands to cancel two San Francisco State University faculty members’ video discussion with Leila Khaled and questionably cited federal statutes prohibiting material support for terrorism in the cancellation. Khaled is known for being the first woman to hijack an airplane, and did so in support of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. Like dominoes, other events featuring Khaled or about Zoom’s ban against her were quickly canceled by Zoom at other universities.
While Khaled is an unsympathetic figure to many — targets of censorship often are — Zoom’s heavy-handed decision sounded the alarm that these services could be a new weak point for academic freedom. As the content of college classroom teachings or reading material continues to be an attractive target for political figures across the political spectrum, it is too easy to imagine Zoom fielding increasingly frequent calls to shut down academic debates and classroom events about other hot-button issues like race, religion, or gender.
Svetlana Mintcheva, Director of Programs at NCAC, explained, “When a private company controls the virtual space in which University classes and meetings are conducted and that company decides to refuse its platform to an academic program because of the viewpoints to be expressed in it, principles of academic freedom are in peril.”
Zoom, of course, has the right to decide what speech it allows on its service. But university leaders also have the right — and obligation — to take their business elsewhere unless they can be certain that their community members’ speech is safe and protected.
Professors started to take up this fight. Faculty bodies at Georgetown University and the University of California issued statements demanding consideration of alternative services and contractual protections for academic freedom with Zoom.
“Zoom assures universities that it honors academic freedom,” wrote James Millward, professor of inter-societal history at Georgetown. “But if it can, whenever faced with third party political pressure, unilaterally assert that this law or that law necessitates its censorship, then such assurances are meaningless. Contracts must have teeth to assure proper service from Zoom, just as they would from any other contractor.”
To its credit, Zoom has started to listen as of late. In April, the company released a statement acknowledging its “unique relationship” with the higher education community. For events held by higher education institutions, Zoom confirmed it would only respond to content violation reports if they originated from the meeting host or account holder, unless “Zoom determines that there is legal or regulatory risk to Zoom if it does not act; the report alleges an immediate threat to the physical safety of any person; or the meeting or webinar is unrelated to the institution’s academics or operations.” This is a good step forward, and sorely-needed.
But making commitments to freedom of expression and academic freedom is the easy part. Standing by them is more difficult. That is a lesson Zoom quickly learned when it canceled yet another faculty event with Khaled only weeks after issuing its statement on academic freedom, leaving its campus users with more unanswered questions about how Zoom determines what constitutes material support for terrorism, and whether Khaled is simply banned from the service.
The national security law breaches campus
On June 30, the national security law passed in Hong Kong, initiating a new era of suppression in Hong Kong and China, and higher education more broadly.
Students from Hong Kong and China knew long before Hong Kong’s national security law that their words could follow them after they leave campus. In 2017, a Chinese student who praised the “fresh air of free speech” at a University of Maryland commencement ceremony was harassed by social media users and Chinese state media and pressured into apologizing after the speech went viral. And two years later, a Chinese student at the University of Minnesota was arrested and sentenced to prison when he returned home to Wuhan, China, for tweets critical of Xi Jinping that he had posted while studying in the U.S.
But the enactment of the national security law would strike educators as a uniquely concerning development in 2020. In August, political science professors at institutions including Princeton University, Harvard Business School, and the University of Pennsylvania began announcing changes to their courses. Common adjustments included blind grading, anonymity, and syllabus warnings for potentially dangerous material. UPenn political science professor Avery Goldstein, who utilized warnings to students, said faculty “have to leave it up to the students whether they enroll, because it is ultimately their lives that are going to be affected” and that he “will make it clear that there is nothing [he] can do to protect them.”
FIRE is tracking these course changes as they gradually make their way across campuses in the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, and Australia. In January, professor Rory Truex, an early adopter of these adaptations at Princeton University, warned students in his Chinese politics class that “the course contains material that the Chinese government would find sensitive” and recommended that students located in China postpone taking the course.
Students feel the pressure, too. A student and pro-democracy activist from Hong Kong astutely explained to Dartmouth’s student newspaper that the national security law “induces them to avoid saying things that they think might trigger or might cross the red line — and the fact is, every person has a different idea of what the red line is.” Indeed, the purpose of vague laws is often to spread fear and uncertainty about what violates it to force overcompliance. The student added that he feared “any slight condemnation or any slight criticism of the government in China” in his class work could put him in danger if he returned home to Hong Kong.
Alongside the adjustments, a number of professors confirmed their commitment to academic freedom and their refusal to self-censor. University of California, Irvine professor Jeff Wasserstrom, who chose to avoid some Zoom meetings due to the concerns it could raise for his students in China, explained that he does “not feel terribly constrained when it comes to what I say in my lectures about China and Hong Kong in my classes, in spite of the new National Security Law.” But, as Wasserstrom acknowledged, that’s partially due to his decision not to go “to any part of the PRC in the near future.”
Wasserstrom added that he still worries about how he “can hold discussions of sensitive subjects in a way in which participants who are in or planning to go to Hong Kong or the mainland will feel free to express their opinions, and be safe from inadvertently saying things that could get them into trouble, on subjects ranging from the Anti-Extradition Bill protests to the Dalai Lama to the camps in Xinjiang.”
Universities do not need to disengage from the world because it contains difficulties and evolving threats. But they also cannot continue to operate as if they are immune from the blatant ethical challenges emerging in global higher education.
While most professors carefully responded to the challenges posed by the national security law and worked to protect both their students and their own rights, there were nevertheless stumbles. Last September, a University of Toronto teaching assistant alleged that “he was warned that when moderating online group discussions there will be ethical concerns around teaching students in China” and that “he was advised to steer discussions away from controversial topics that could run students into trouble.”
And months later, editor-in-chief and founder of Hong Kong Free Press Tom Grundy shared that a lecturer at the School of Media and Communication at the University of Leeds invited him to a Zoom class discussion but asked him “to not focus on HK protests per se” out of “safety concerns” because many students in attendance were from China. Grundy withdrew from the event, writing that he sympathized with “the pressure mainland students-studying-abroad may be under” but did not believe “western institutions should bend to it.”
Ultimately, professors’ refusal to self-censor does not come without a cost. University of California, Davis professor Eddy U, who offered anonymity to students in his class on inequality in China, confirmed that he “won’t be watering down or changing the content” of his courses and, instead, hoped to teach an additional class about authoritarianism in Hong Kong. U, who emigrated from Hong Kong in 1987, was upfront about the challenges his teaching could provoke: “I’ll put it this way: I don’t have plans to go to China.”
Adjusting to the new era of campus suppression
Between suppression of information about COVID-19 and the national security law, it has become increasingly clear that China’s censorship is a global phenomenon, its effects uncontained by traditional borders. And as speech restrictions spread among India, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and elsewhere, this global phenomenon mutates and becomes harder to combat. With this understanding, those concerned about preserving freedom of expression within the academy must look carefully at how universities proceed in the coming months and years.
While universities await the opportunity to return all students and faculty to campus, we cannot perfectly predict when vaccine rollouts, international travel, and national and state mandates will align to ensure that American and international students can confidently return all students to classrooms. Alternatively, universities may find that continuing a partial or blended online program allows greater flexibility and provides a more appealing structure for some communities. Put simply, we cannot assume that the pandemic’s end will signify the end of Zoom or other services’ role in the classroom.
Authoritarianism is here to stay and, to a certain extent, online education may be, too. In this environment, it is vital that academic institutions act as reliable stalwarts of academic freedom and the rights of their community members. Will they be able to do so when self-censorship is incentivized and dissent comes with a hefty price tag and when they have frequently crumbled in the face of much less severe pressure?
Universities cannot continue to seek the benefits of international higher education while recusing themselves from the battles to make it a worthwhile endeavor.
Like other global businesses, universities are not immune from weighing values and may believe they must choose between expressive commitments and their bottom line — especially if they worry that their access to international students or lucrative partnerships in China could be on the chopping block. The result could take the blatant form of censorship of student events or warnings to outspoken faculty. But the more likely result, and the one much harder to identify or track, is self-censorship. University leadership might choose to avoid speaking invitations to frowned upon figures, like a Hong Kong protest leader or Taiwanese official, or steer away from hosting politically-themed art installations or events.
This is not overcautious theorizing. These issues have already surfaced on American campuses, years before universities’ international students were forced across borders, behind internet surveillance systems, and onto third-party video services. In 2009, North Carolina State University revoked a speaking invitation to the Dalai Lama, its provost admitting: “I don’t want to say we didn’t think about whether there were implications. Of course you do. China is a major trading partner for North Carolina.”
In 2015, a Harvard Law School vice dean disrupted the planning of a campus event coordinated by Chinese dissident and human rights lawyer Teng Biao so that it would not sully then-Harvard President Drew Faust’s trip to China. And in 2017, the China Scholarship Council reportedly interfered with Chinese scholars’ trips to the University of California, San Diego after it hosted the Dalai Lama as a commencement speaker. In recent months, Chinese Student and Scholar Associations (unsuccessfully) attempted to derail events featuring Uyghur rights activists and Hong Kong exile Nathan Law at American campuses.
The uneasy relationship between American universities and oppressive governments is not limited to China. In the past few years, for example, two American universities, Northwestern University and Georgetown University, failed to adequately protect speech that would be commonplace on American campuses but dicey on their Qatar campuses. A spokesperson for Georgetown University in Qatar, which canceled a 2018 debate about God and gender that provoked an online backlash in a country with a blasphemy law, claimed the campus protected free expression but with a caveat: “Faculty members and student groups with access to university benefits may host events on campus that are in accordance with Qatari law.”
Universities do not need to disengage from the world because it contains difficulties and evolving threats. But they also cannot continue to operate as if they are immune from the blatant ethical challenges emerging in global higher education. We are in a new era of threats to free speech. It is time our universities start acting like it.
What can be done?
It would be dishonest to suggest that universities hoping to preserve the values of academic freedom and freedom of expression in this environment have an easy road ahead of them. They do not. They face the possibility of revenue loss, government pressure, and limited international opportunities.
Despite all this, universities have an easily accessible model to look to when faced with challenges surrounding speech and pressure: their faculty. While administrators largely stayed silent about the national security law and its potential to disrupt higher education, professors around the world mobilized and sought ways to protect the safety of their communities while still preserving their academic freedom and right to teach sensitive material. Even when it could limit their own personal opportunities — like making personal travel or research trips to China questionable or unsafe — many placed academic freedom first.
Ultimately, university leaders must be willing to publicly draw a clear line asserting their values and then privately stand by it, in their dealings at home and internationally. In 2018, when Cornell University ended two exchange programs with Renmin University of China over violations of freedom of expression, the university followed up with a set of guidelines intended to steer international programs to prioritize the protection of expressive freedoms.
Now, Cornell is facing a test to those principles after the university approved a dual degree program between its School of Hotel Administration and Peking University in China, a proposal met by severe pushback from both students and faculty, one of whom asked how Cornell could protect its community when “the people teaching next door can get hauled away by the Chinese government.” Academic freedom guidelines are vital in international partnerships, but they are only meaningful if they are followed. To a significant group of Cornell’s community, it does not appear that they will be.
And as the hammer falls on higher education in Hong Kong, universities with partnerships in the region urgently need to assess whether their programs can continue safely as Hong Kong’s universities prepare for full enforcement of the national security law.
In addition to making careful choices in international partnerships, universities must act wisely with regards to their domestic ones, too. Zoom deserves credit for adjusting its policies in response to concerns from activists and faculty — but universities should still be wary. If they turn to Zoom or other third party services for online services, either by necessity or choice, they must remember that speech-protective policies are easier to craft than to practice and that legislators are already deeply invested in what’s taught in physical classrooms and may seek to place similar pressure on their virtual counterparts. Universities should also review how these services protect the private information of students and faculty to guard against the possibility that the programs they use are creating permanently accessible evidence of dissent for censorial governments to study — and prosecute.
Ultimately, university leaders must be willing to publicly draw a clear line asserting their values and then privately stand by it, in their dealings at home and internationally.
Mintcheva recommends that universities “develop and publicize alternatives to online teaching platforms so that one platform (currently Zoom) no longer enjoys a monopoly as an online classroom and meeting platform.” Mintcheva also encourages institutions to “develop contract language to limit the ability of online platforms to curtail academic freedom in violation of university norms.”
Lastly, universities should look to their own behavior and study whether it helps to contribute to the existing state of surveillance within the academy. Are administrators punishing faculty members for political tweets? Do they surveil student activists or groups for controversial speech? Do their IT policies inspire self-censorship among their communities? Administrations may believe controversial speech in their community is bad for their ever-important brand, but they should consider that playing a part in a society with increasing authoritarianism and an eternal internet record could be worse for it in the long term.
Universities cannot continue to seek the benefits of international higher education while recusing themselves from the battles to make it a worthwhile endeavor. As the number of notable institutions willing to take risks to defy authoritarian pressure dwindles, we must be able to rely on universities’ commitments to freedom of expression. The alternative is too dangerous to consider.