Pressure continues against campus critics of China

Student group claims UChicago’s event with Hong Kong activist Nathan Law 'falls outside the purviews of free speech.'

May 24, 2021

Exiled activist and politician Nathan Law is no stranger to efforts to silence him — if he returns to Hong Kong, he will undoubtedly face arrest under the national security law. But a recent incident with Law at the University of Chicago is a reminder that, even on campuses far outside of Hong Kong and China, the right to speak critically of China is subject to debate. 

Allegations that the invitation to Law “falls outside the purviews of free speech”

Last week, Law shared that his invitation to take part in a “Distinguished Guest” series at the University of Chicago’s Harris School of Public Policy was opposed by the executive board of the university’s Chinese Students and Scholars Association, which “firmly request[ed]” that the school’s deans “seriously address” the CSSA’s complaints against Law’s invitation and “internalize the current and future demands.”

Their letter explains that while the “CSSA greatly values and adamantly defends freedom of speech and expression on our campus,” Law’s invitation “not only falls outside the purviews of free speech, but also has been widely perceived as exposing the insensitivities and disrespect the Harris administration shows toward Chinese students and scholars.” Calling Law a “convicted criminal in our country who has publicly glorified violence,” the group’s executive board goes on to write:

We encourage constructive dialogue and meaningful academic discussion, but in this case the seminar is merely providing a platform for a political extremist to cast his biased opinions. 

Many Chinese students at the University, including incoming Harris students who are aware of this situation have already expressed that they feel disrespected and unvalued by the administration. This incident is only adding onto the trauma of discrimination that has befallen the Chinese international student community at the University especially during COVID-19 . . . Many Chinese students at Harris have already expressed regret coming to this institution, or have advised incoming students not to attend. 

Contrary to the CSSA’s claims, the invitation to Law does not “fall outside the purviews of free speech.” Under the First Amendment, political speech is afforded the highest protection, and while the University of Chicago is not a public university bound to respect the First Amendment, its policies protecting freedom of expression have set a high standard for private universities’ speech commitments. 

Fortunately, the event went on as scheduled despite the CSSA’s demands. But Law told FIRE that this is not the first time he has faced opposition to his presence on campus. 

“Many Hong Kong student unions on UK campuses withdrew their invitation to me due to the fear of NSL,” Law told FIRE, citing Hong Kong’s repressive national security law that has impacted students and faculty around the world. (Law’s quotes have been slightly edited for clarity.) “Students of Hong Kong, when they demonstrate on campus, are attacked by pro-Beijing people. There are worries among activist groups in support of the Hong Kong movement.”

Last year, Law joined fellow activist Joshua Wong for an event at Johns Hopkins University’s Foreign Affairs Symposium, where student newspaper The News-Letter reported that about 100 protesters gathered to oppose their invitation to speak. Before the event went forward, nearly 2,500 people signed a petition that claimed to “represent a substantial cohort of Chinese students” at JHU. The petition called on the symposium “to consider our feelings which are shared by a substantial number of students in the JHU community and to refrain from hosting this event which can be regarded as an encouragement to the violent riot filled with terrorism and racism supported by Law and Wong.”

“I think the environment is actually getting better when the world knows more about the CCP’s [the Chinese Communist Party’s] human rights violations,” Law explained to FIRE. “Yet, there are still extended arms of CCP trying to silence democratic activists even though they are abroad. I have encountered similar protests at NYU, JHU and UPenn, among many others. It’s a serious concern that the government should take actions to address.”

The broader trend surrounding campus debates about China

Complaints and disinvitation demands against Nathan Law are not the only controversies to develop surrounding campus events disfavorable to China. In recent years, campuses in the United States, Canada, the UK, and elsewhere have experienced similar disputes. 

As FIRE has explained before, universities must be willing to defend expressive rights on their campus, even if they must weather tense political disagreements. That is true regardless of what country or sensitive political issue is under discussion. 

Most recently, Carnegie Mellon University’s Graduate Student Assembly issued an apology shortly after sending an email about discrimination against the campus’ Asian community that included a note adding that human rights issues in China, Hong Kong, and India could “add to the stress our peers are feeling during this time.” A Change.org petition challenging the email and demanding the GSA “[r]etract this objectionable language and apologize for its inclusion and the hurt that it has caused members of the Carnegie Mellon community” earned thousands of signatures. 

“GSA MUST APOLOGIZE, RISE UP AGAINST RACISM, GSA RACIST RESIGN” was also painted on a CMU campus fence.  

Last year, Brandeis University’s CSSA chapter encouraged students to use a form letter to oppose a scheduled Zoom panel titled “Cultural Genocide: An Overview of Uyghurs in Xinjiang, China.” The letter explained, “I do support freedom of speech in this community. However, concerns are raised about the negative influence this panel will bring to the Chinese community in Brandeis, since the information in the panel may be based on false or unconfirmed information.” The letter also called on Brandeis to “not treat [China] as a target for condemnation.” The event went forward, but was disrupted over Zoom. 

Similarly, in 2019, the CSSA chapter at Canada’s McMaster University emailed administrators about a campus event with a Uyghur activist, alleging that the hosts of the event violated several policies, including those against “hate speech” and “false defamation of an individual.” The email also noted that the event had caught “the Chinese embassy’s attention.” And in 2017, the Chinese Students and Scholars Association at the University of California, San Diego contacted administrators to call for the disinvitation of the Dalai Lama, who was invited to speak at commencement. The CSSA also cited involvement from the Chinese consulate of Los Angeles.

As FIRE has explained before, universities must be willing to defend expressive rights on their campuses, even if it means they must weather tense political disagreements. That is true regardless of what country or sensitive political issue is under discussion. 

Ultimately, Law believes universities cannot allow pressure to determine what can be said or who can speak. 

“First of all, the university must stand firm with their stance of inviting political activists. Free speech and academic integrity shall be preserved,” Law said to FIRE. “Secondly, the university should lay out clearly about the rationale behind these invitations and counter any arguments that are based on pure biases and narratives from a totalitarian regime.”


Schools:  Johns Hopkins University University of Chicago