UC Davis warns students about speech restrictions in China

January 29, 2019

Earlier this month, FIRE launched its “Commitment to Campus Free Expression at Home and Abroad,” a statement we’re encouraging universities to adopt to show that they take seriously the rights of their community members in both the United States and abroad. One important ask in FIRE’s “Home and Abroad” commitment is that administrations notify students and faculty traveling for university-managed programs of the speech restrictions they should expect to encounter while abroad.

Earlier this month, the University of California, Davis — which offers study abroad programming in China — sent a warning to some of its students cautioning about surveillance of messaging apps and political speech in China. The email read, in part:

5. While the use of WhatsApp, WeChat and like messaging apps are legal in China, we have seen in the latest espionage charge of a US citizen in Russia where the use of What’sApp [sic] has been cited in his espionage charges. Our concern here is the possibility China could use this condition similarly against western travelers to levy charges or as an excuse to deny departure. We recommend not using these messaging apps in China at this time.

6. As always, do not make any unfavorable political statements or postings on social media and do not take photos of any government facilities without permission.

Some University of California, Berkeley students received the warning as well. Claire Doan, director of media relations for UC’s Office of the President, confirmed the sending of the email, telling CNN the university “sent the email following a recent Department of State travel advisory for China; it is meant for consideration by staff involved in ensuring the safety and security of international travel by individuals in the UC community.”

While FIRE believes universities should think carefully about how satellite campuses and international programs will harm student and faculty rights before instituting them, those who are currently maintaining such programs should consider sending warnings like UC Davis’ recent message about China. Students should be able to make informed decisions throughout their academic careers, and are in a better position to do so when their universities openly acknowledge how speech restrictions abroad could affect students’ freedom to study and research.

Keep on the lookout for more from FIRE about how universities are navigating the challenges satellite campuses and study abroad programs pose to free expression. If you’d like your university to prioritize free expression and academic freedom in its agreements in and outside of the United States, add you name to FIRE’s “Home and Abroad” commitment.

Schools:  University of California, Davis