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Human Rights Watch Report Warns of Global Trend in Speech Restriction

By January 29, 2016

Human Rights Watch’s (HRW’s) 2016 World Report, published on Wednesday, details the gravest threats to human rights in more than 90 countries. Among the most serious threats discussed in the report are those that burden freedom of expression, association, and assembly, caused by what HRW calls “the politics of fear,” which could impact speech rights on campuses in the United States.

HRW’s executive director, Kenneth Roth, penned the keynote essay for the report, titled “Twin Threats: How the Politics of Fear and the Crushing of Civil Society Imperil Global Rights.” In the essay, Roth details how a global climate of fear has led to restrictive governmental policies that put free speech at risk around the world. Calling them “less visible” human rights threats, Roth illustrates how governments have increasingly enacted policies that restrict civil society, particularly targeting civic groups that are designed to monitor and speak out against governmental policies.

Roth’s essay aptly illustrates the importance of “civil society,” which necessitates free speech rights:

A vigorous civil society helps to ensure that governments serve their people. Isolated  individuals find it difficult to speak loudly enough to be heard. Joining together in civic groups amplifies their voices and leverages their ability to influence governments. Civil society—the nongovernmental groups and associations that enable people to band together on matters of mutual concern—is an essential part of any democracy worth its name. Independent and vigorous civic groups help to guarantee that governments build schools, ensure access to health care, protect the environment, and take countless other steps to pursue their vision of the common good.

At the core of civil society, and often working in conjunction with civic organizations, are university students and faculty. While Roth looks at the problems that civil society faces on a macro level, FIRE evaluates these issues on a micro level. If you hold a mirror to universities around the world, it reflects Roth’s warning that discourse and dissenting opinion are at risk.

Torch readers know that university administrators regularly clamp down on speech that they disagree with or deem controversial. Amongst the most egregious violations of speech Roth recognizes are media censorship and bans on public assembly. In Turkey, for instance, HRW gives numerous examples of how authorities have curtailed speech by blocking Twitter accounts, removing tweets, putting arbitrary bans on assembly, and launching investigations on publications. Likewise, students at Texas Christian University and Colorado College have been punished for tweets and posts on Yik Yak, respectively. At the University of Hawaii at Hilo, an administrator ordered students to stop passing out literature, stating that they could only do so in the university’s unconstitutional “free speech zone.” And at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, a satirical student newspaper article led to a months-long harassment investigation.

HRW’s discussion of speech issues worldwide is necessary and important, but what is crucial to remember is that speech restrictions like the ones highlighted in the report happen regularly at universities here in the U.S. Universities are microcosms for civil society, and any tolerance of speech restrictions opens the doors to others on a larger scale. By ensuring that an environment of free speech is welcomed and encouraged on college campuses, we can set an example for how civil society should operate around the world.