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It can be tempting to look at censorship in other countries and conclude that it’s troubling, but far away, and we should save our worrying for what happens here. Most people are, for good reason, much more concerned about the impact of the laws in the country in which they live. But this attitude can fail to account for how censorship functions, especially in an era in which the internet, digital surveillance, frequent international travel, and global industries have made some foreign laws less constrained by borders and more difficult to combat. 

For the last several years, FIRE has been covering the complex relationship between American higher education and global censorship, including the difficulties of protecting speech on satellite campuses and the rights of students traveling between different legal systems. 

A recent discussion at the University of California, San Diego offers insight into how, even in the United States, students can feel pressure from hundreds or thousands of miles away. 

“Climate of Fear”

On May 19, UC San Diego’s International House hosted an event, “Campus Free Speech in the Shadow of Foreign Governments: China/Hong Kong and Israel/Palestine.” The San Diego Union-Tribune reports that participants, including students whose identities were kept anonymous for the sake of their safety, “shared concerns about how international students could face repercussions when returning to their home country for speaking about issues and participating in rallies or protests while in the United States.”

Universities would be wise to pay attention to community members sounding the alarm about political and academic speech being chilled on their campuses, even if the source of the threat is a distant government.

Discussing a “climate of fear” in campus discussions, UC San Diego communications professor Gary Fields shared that a non-student filed a complaint about his class on Israel and Palestine in 2018, leading the university to investigate his course. The investigation was eventually resolved in Fields’ favor. 

And students from UC San Diego’s Hong Kong Cultural Society expressed concerns that their activism on campus would result in legal trouble after they return home. Citing Hong Kong’s national security law — a threat to global speech and academic freedom that FIRE has covered extensively — one student said, “The reason we’re concerned is it applies to anyone anywhere in the world . . . Because we do not know if what we do or say will violate the law, I think we have a constant fear that we will be violating the law by promoting freedom.”

This student is not alone in fearing that the national security law will be used as a cudgel to punish campus speech critical of China. As FIRE documents in our resource tracking campus responses to the national security law, faculty and students at campuses around the world have made changes to their teaching, research, class participation, and activism to adjust to the law that threatens even non-residents of China and Hong Kong. Just this week, Hong Kong’s Secretary for Security John Lee promised exiled activists that “what is certain is that we will pursue your criminal liability for the rest of your life.”

The average American likely does not need to worry about violating a law in Hong Kong or China with what they say in the United States. But that doesn’t mean that American higher education has nothing to fear. 

Threat of Global Censorship on American Campuses

Like many other industries, higher education is not cabined within individual countries’ borders. The global nature of higher education — with hundreds of thousands of students traveling from China to study in the United States, faculty conducting research and scholarship in and about China, and universities maintaining and pursuing ties, expansions, and programs in China — means that significant groups of stakeholders must consider the implications of what they say about China and whether it could bring them legal, personal, or financial repercussions. 

As I explained last year in a post at Techdirt, the COVID-19 pandemic taught the hard lesson that censorship’s impacts are rarely confined by borders. China’s obfuscation, cover-ups, and silencing of whistleblowers in the early stages of the pandemic cost the rest of the world invaluable weeks of response and research time. I argued that “[c]ensorship in China may seem like a faraway problem, but its effects will be felt globally for a long time to come.” The same is true for campus communities whose participants may feel the need to self-censor to protect their safety, careers, or families in the face of intensifying efforts to control and silence critics of China.

Universities would be wise to pay attention to community members sounding the alarm about political and academic speech being chilled on their campuses, even if the source of the threat is a distant government. These challenges are not going to dissipate any time soon, and administrators must do more to adapt to the changing circumstances.

If you’re a student or faculty member worried about your ability to speak, study, or teach freely on campus because of the national security law or other global censorship threats, reach out to FIRE. We want to hear from you. 

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