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Flyers critical of the Chinese Communist Party torn down across George Washington University’s campus

FIRE urges George Washington University to reaffirm its commitment to free speech
Statue of George Washington on the campus of George Washington University

At George Washington University, apparently only one view of the Chinese Communist Party is allowed on campus. In the ongoing dispute in higher education over the CCP’s human rights abuses, the latest casualties are scores of anti-CCP flyers mysteriously torn down on campus. FIRE urges GW to address this vandalism and censorship of political expression that the university’s free speech policies protect.

Stretching back to February’s Beijing Winter Olympics, GW students raised awareness of the CCP’s dismal record on human rights through a series of critical flyers across campus. The posters, depicting the CCP’s oppression of Tibetans, genocide of Uyghurs, and takeover of Hong Kong, among other authoritarian activities, drew a sharp rebuke from the GW Chinese Cultural Association, the GW Chinese Students and Scholars Assocation, and the university administration, with GW President Mark Wrighton initially seeking to unmask and investigate the student activist behind the posters. Only after extensive criticism from FIRE, politicians, GW community members, and others did Wrighton recognize the posters as “political statements” meriting protection under the GW’s commitment to free speech.

FIRE called Wrighton’s initial actions a “wholly inappropriate response by an American university purportedly committed to free expression.” GW administrators should not have required condemnation from FIRE to realize they cannot punish students for criticizing foreign political parties or governments.

But the hits kept coming for student activists on campus. In early October, the latest posters critical of the CCP were torn down across campus. According to the ​​Athenai Institute, a nonpartisan, student-founded movement devoted to removing the influence of the CCP from American college campuses, the takedown of these flyers — across multiple buildings on GW’s Foggy Bottom campus — appeared to be a coordinated effort. 

Given GW’s shameful involvement in censorship earlier this year, it’s especially vital that administrators transparently confront these newest efforts against anonymous student activists.

Whether this effort was the work of administrators, students, or outside individuals or organizations remains unclear. What is clear is that GW must take action against this campaign to censor anti-CCP voices. As a university “committed to the protection of free speech” because “[f]ree inquiry and free expression are indispensable to the attainment” of its goals, GW promises students the right to “express opinions publicly and privately” and “the right to dissent and protest.” Denouncing foreign countries, governments, and political parties falls squarely within core political expression protected by freedom of speech, and GW may not shut it off or allow others to do so merely because the speech offends them. 

In a letter to GW yesterday, we urged the university to fulfill its laudable commitment to free speech by investigating the flyers’ disappearance. Regardless of who is at the root of the censorship, coordinated campaigns to silence student voices on campus have no place in higher education. Pressure from foreign governments or community members provides no excuse for violating students’ expressive rights. 

FIRE calls on GW to allow the fullest array of political opinions to circulate on campus by addressing the takedown of the anti-CCP flyers. Given GW’s shameful involvement in censorship earlier this year, it’s especially vital that administrators transparently confront these newest efforts against anonymous student activists. 

FIRE defends the rights of students and faculty members — no matter their views — at public and private universities and colleges in the United States. If you are a student or a faculty member facing investigation or punishment for your speech, submit your case to FIRE today. If you’re a faculty member at a public college or university, call the Faculty Legal Defense Fund 24-hour hotline at 254-500-FLDF (3533). If you’re a college journalist facing censorship or a media law question, call the Student Press Freedom Initiative 24-hour hotline at 717-734-SPFI (7734).

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