Report: Academics worldwide face frequent, alarming threats

October 25, 2018

This week, Scholars at Risk released Free to Think 2018, its fourth report in an annual series addressing threats faced by academics around the world.

The report offers a sobering analysis of the methods — including violence, imprisonment, and travel restrictions — opponents of free expression and academic freedom use to target vocal members of the higher education community.

Among the report’s most disturbing findings is that 79 violent attacks against higher education communities occurred in 27 countries over the past year, where “[a]t least 77 students, scholars, staff, campus security personnel, and others died in these attacks, with hundreds more injured.”

Universities in Pakistan, Kenya, Nigeria, and Afghanistan faced serious attacks from militant and extremist groups, and faculty members in countries including Bangladesh, Yemen, and India suffered targeted violent attacks due to their scholarship or public commentary.

Students have experienced violence as well; in one example cited by Scholars at Risk, students accounted for a number of protesters against Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega who were killed or wounded by Nicaragua’s security forces.

The report’s coverage of the wrongful imprisonment of at least 419 students last year — like those arrested for protesting Turkey’s military operations in Syria’s Afrin region — also includes the detainment of American student Ivette Salazar, which resulted in a FIRE lawsuit.

On Jan. 11, FIRE filed a lawsuit against Illinois’ Joliet Junior College, where Salazar had been detained and interrogated by campus police in November 2017, and told she could not distribute her “Shut Down Capitalism” flyers without the college’s permission. Three months later, Salazar and Joliet Junior College agreed to settle the suit, prompting the college to enact policy changes that protected the speech rights of its 38,000 students, pay Salazar $30,000 in damages and attorneys’ fees, and provide training to its staff and campus police.

Fortunately, Salazar was able to defend her rights, but some of the students discussed in the report are still imprisoned and seeking justice.  

Salazar’s censorship and detainment were not the only threats to free speech in the United States cited by Scholars at Risk, which also addressed incidents of violence outside controversial speeches at the University of Washington, Colorado State University, and Michigan State University. The report notes that “partisan political actors frequently see universities as a tool for increasing their own visibility” and encourages universities to “take action to avert physical confrontations and ensure the safety of everyone on campus.”

Finally, Scholars at Risk offers a call to action for “states, higher education leaders, and civil society around the world” (emphasis in original):

… to reject violence and coercion aimed at restricting inquiry and expression; to protect threatened students, scholars, and universities; and to reaffirm publicly their support for the principles that critical discourse is not disloyalty, that ideas are not crimes, and that everyone should be free to think, question, and share ideas.

FIRE joins Scholars at Risk in demanding respect for the rights and safety of members of the academic community, and encourages readers to check out the full report for a more comprehensive account of the threats facing freedom of expression at educational institutions around the world and recommendations for addressing them.

Schools:  Joliet Junior College

Cases:  Joliet Junior College — Stand Up For Speech Lawsuit