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Best of Newsdesk: Students around the world targeted for their advocacy

Supporters of the uprising in Iran protesting with national flags in front of the royal palace on the Dam Square in Amsterdam, Netherlands (Credit: Adam Szuly / Shutterstock)

EDITOR’S NOTE: This article is part of FIRE’s annual “Best of Newsdesk” retrospective, where we bring you another look at the year’s best content. It originally ran Feb. 6.

If you want to get a sense of the power of student activists’ voices, simply look at the lengths to which authoritarians will go to ensure they can’t be heard. In just the past few weeks, students around the world have faced investigations, expulsions, and arrests — all because they spoke out.

#MeToo meets censorship in China

It’s no surprise that students in China — where censorship is the rule, rather than the exception — face consequences for their expression. This time, it’s for sharing their thoughts on the growing #MeToo movement.

Despite censors’ efforts to hinder the spread of #MeToo in China, a number of activists are still taking part in discussions about sexual assault and harassment. Among them is Xiao Meili, a feminist activist who decried sexual harassment in an open letter to her alma mater, the Communications University of China.

According to Meili, students who signed her letter were called in by their professors for questioning. Meili told reporters, “They were asked, ‘Why write to the school? What was the point?’ They also asked students whether they were influenced by foreign forces.” This is hardly surprising considering Chinese authorities’ attempts to clamp down on discussion of #MeToo in the university context. Censors have made every effort to completely scrub a former student’s letter to Peking University accusing a professor of sexual harassment from social media sites.

Students detained, then expelled, for protesting Myanmar’s budget

In Myanmar, protests over government funding have resulted in dozens of expulsions. On January 22, students from universities across Myanmar gathered to protest at Yadanabon University to call on Parliament to increase its education budget.

Seventy-two protesters were detained by police. As of last week, 40 of them were expelled from their universities, and the remaining protesters expect they will face expulsion as well. Kyaw Thura Ye Kyaw, president of the Yadanabon University Student Union, reports that some of the students were even forced to sign pledges agreeing that they would not take part in future protests.

In response to the arrests and expulsions, the Myanmar Teachers’ Federation issued a statement condemning the Ministry of Education and noting that “[d]ismissal of the students who protested for an increase in the education budget could scare students into not exercising freedom of expression in the future.” Unfortunately, that seems to have been the intent.

Students in Iran among hundreds of detained protesters

The situation is similar in Iran, where students taking part in widespread protests of the country’s current political state have been detained by authorities — and so have students who simply petitioned for their release.

At least 43 students who took part in protests were arrested on December 31 and January 1 after leaving the University of Tehran. According to the Center for Human Rights in Iran, “government officials announced that some of these student arrests were ‘preventative,’” meaning some students were arrested before even taking part in a protest. They were among hundreds of people who were arrested by early January.

Watchdog organization Scholars at Risk reports that four members of an Iranian student union arranged a January 1 meeting with the chancellor of the University of Tehran to discuss the release of the arrested students, only to be met by authorities who detained them upon exiting. Scholars at Risk decried the students’ arrest as “apparent retaliation for their peaceful exercise of the rights to freedom of association and freedom of expression,” and rightfully noted:

State authorities have a responsibility to protect freedom of expression and freedom and association, and to refrain from arbitrary detention intended to restrict these freedoms. Such actions undermine academic freedom, institutional autonomy, and democratic society generally.

The stories of students in China, Myanmar, and Iran offer a bleak look at the global state of students’ expressive rights — and these examples arise only from the past few weeks. But why is it important that students assert a right to freedom of expression, even if the laws of their country do not recognize it?

On the newest episode of Make No Law, a podcast from Popehat’s Ken White, student advocate and plaintiff in the landmark Supreme Court case Tinker v. Des Moines Independent School District (1969) Mary Beth Tinker offered a necessary reminder to anyone who seeks to belittle or weaken the role student activists play in civic life:

Ken White: Maybe another reason for the retreat from the Tinker Standard is that adults don’t believe student speech is really student speech at all. They assume that anything a student says on matters of national importance is just parroting what someone told them to say.

Mary Beth Tinker: Again, people are saying, oh, these kids are being used, they are being manipulated, and people always said that about us, too, that our parents are manipulating us, that we couldn’t know anything. We don’t know enough about Vietnam. But you know what, other people, the adults didn’t know very much about Vietnam either and young people have a perception of what’s going on in the world that is unique, that’s important and that should be valued.

[ . . . ]

So in my mind it’s a lesson as I talk to kids around the country today that you don’t have to be the greatest courageous hero of all time; you can be you, you can be a scared kid and nervous and have a tiny bit of courage and still do something, still make a difference in your way, and that’s exactly what happened.

Mary Beth Tinker is right — student activists do have unique and valuable contributions to public debate. And if the laws of their countries don’t yet recognize students’ rights to freedom of expression, changing the law starts with the students who demand those rights. University administrators and government officials who seek to suppress them only send the message that they fear what they have to say.

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