In the past couple of years, we have heard a growing number of complaints and warnings that freedom of speech is under threat in universities in Hong Kong. However, similar charges are being made elsewhere, especially in the United States.
I have been involved with university governance – serving for several years as chairman of Lingnan University council, and as a trustee of Pomona College in California. It is clear to me, and I am sure most of us, that freedom of speech is essential to academic life.
Needless to say, freedom of expression is essential to all of us who need and value free media, the free flow of information and Hong Kong’s success as a business center and vibrant community.
But freedom of speech, like all freedoms, comes with responsibilities. We have a right to express our views, but at the same time we must respect others’ right to be heard – even if we do not agree with what they say. And debate and discussion must be peaceful. Language aimed at stirring up hatred or violence is not acceptable, and nor are threats of violence.
The biggest controversies about free speech in Hong Kong universities have been related to the serious political divisions in our overall society. In some ways they are not about freedom of expression in itself.
For example, if someone is disciplined after leaking information from a confidential meeting, can we really call it a “free speech” issue? Are protesters who physically break through doors or push individuals around simply exercising “free speech”? Would it be more accurate to say that protesters who disrupt a meeting are denying others from exercising free speech?
In the US, however, some students are questioning the very idea of freedom of speech.
On several occasions in the last few months, some student groups have attempted – and in some cases succeeded – in preventing speakers from appearing on campus.
The speakers concerned vary from controversial academics to outspoken media figures. In the current divided political climate following the election of Donald Trump as president, it could be argued that some of the speakers are provocative, or even deliberately inflammatory or offensive.
In one case – still in the news in recent days – conservative writer Ann Coulter planned to speak at the University of California at Berkeley. Opponents and supporters clashed at a demonstration, and her talk was cancelled amid fears of violence. After a predictable uproar, the university made new arrangements for her to speak.
In another case at the Claremont-McKenna College, protesters tried to prevent writer Heather MacDonald from speaking. MacDonald is a conservative on issues like immigration and law and order. One of her positions is that the Black Lives Matter movement potentially undermines the police.
As a trustee of Pomona (part of a consortium that includes Claremont-McKenna), I saw the lengthy message radical students submitted to the administration justifying the protest.
To put it briefly, the students claimed to represent racial and other minorities and stated that “free speech” for MacDonald was equivalent to oppression of marginalized groups. They argued that MacDonald’s words would be a form of violence, and should therefore be banned.
These particular students are probably not representative of the majority. But the political climate has become so heated in the US that their ideas gain support more widely on and off campus. This political climate has also led to outbreaks of violence in some cities between pro- and anti-Trump groups.
Let’s compare this with the situation in Hong Kong.
Our political divide is very real. As in the US, some people at the extremes in the two camps simply fail to comprehend each other.
But I have never heard Hong Kong students argue that opposing views should be banned from campus. And despite noisy protests and gestures, we do not see the divisions in our community break out into violence between opposing groups.
Unlike the US, we do not have major media outlets that make money from deliberately trying to polarize and inflame a mass audience. Our politicians mostly use reasonable argument rather than encourage fear or hatred.
Most of the divisions and disagreements in our community are related to basic problems like housing, and specific issues like old-age pensions and opportunities for the younger generation. Fixing these problems will be the priority of the new administration. If the administration makes progress on these issues, and reduces the divisions and distrust, tolerance and respect for others’ views will surely remain core values of our college campuses, and of Hong Kong as a whole.
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