Saturday, January 11, 2014

Free expression news from all over

An American, Shezzan Cassim, has been released from imprisonment in the United Arab Emirates for making and uploading to YouTube a satirical video. The video apparently made fun of Dubai teenagers, who put on gangsta airs while living in luxury.

On the web there are various summaries of Cassim's experience. The descriptions are collectively incomplete but their very fuzziness suggest some of the problems with expression in humorless, conservative autocracies. Cassim was held for five months before he was charged, and it is still unclear just what he was charged with and convicted of. The CNN report states that "The charges were not read in court, but the country's main English-language newspaper reported that Cassim was accused of defaming the UAE's image abroad." The EFF says he was held to have violated a provision of a cybercrimes law that prohibits "using information technology to publish caricatures that are 'liable to endanger state security and its higher interests or infringe on public order." That sounds like a very supple and adaptable statute that criminalizes any criticism of the state.

So, who cares, other than universal human rights extremists? Americans traveling abroad always have to be sensitive to the local customs, don't they?

Well, if I were a student or faculty member at an American university that had a campus in that part of the world, I would care. Such as RIT in Dubai. Or NYU in Abu Dhabi. Oh, but now I remember. The NYU president once said that he had "no trouble distinguishing between the rights of academic freedom and the rights of political expression." What training does NYU give its students about what not to say or do when they spend a term in Abu Dhabi?

These incidents raise the questions I have been raising for awhile. What does it mean to be an American university in an authoritarian state? American higher education is still considered tops, in no small measure because of the freedom and creativity with which the "brand" is associated. That is why a place that is actually run by the government calls itselfs "The American University in Dubai," puts up a web site that looks like an American university's, and even gets itself accredited by an American accreditation agency. (Though the parking lot does not look like an American university's.) It is why the American University in the Emirates, also in Dubai, borrows American values such as "innovation and creativity, respect and dignity for all, openness, trust, and integrity," and so on. That university has some pretty high class American partners: George Mason U, U of Virginia, Stetson U, etc.

I suppose the argument would be that Mr. Cassim was disrespectful, so the university's and the state's values would be perfectly aligned in this case. I almost wish the US had a trademark on the use of the word "American" in such contexts, and could prevent its use in places where the right of free speech, so fundamental to American university life, was so abridged.

But restricting the use of the word "American" would not solve the problem of Yale in Singapore. After some of my previous blogging I received some email from Singapore, making the case that I was talking as though you couldn't have a liberal arts institution without exactly the American notions of free speech, and the Yale-NUS programs were off to a good start with students deeply engaged in the classical texts of Western philosophy. To be clear, I hope they succeed, and I am glad they are off to a good start.

But the dualism with Singaporean state information control seems simply untenable and scary. The rules are becoming more restrictive, not less. Any blog providing "political commentary" must now register with the government and identify the owners. Some are shutting down rather than comply. Oh no, protests the government; this is not censorship--just an extension to cyberspace of the extant principle that foreign governments may not meddle Singaporean politics. You can say anything you want, we just need to be sure you are not a proxy for a foreign influence. Oh yes, and that we know who you are.

The Strait Times gives some more details:
MORE tightening is in the works, with a review of the Broadcasting Act expected to take place this year. 
The Media Development Authority (MDA) has stated its intent to prevent foreign influence over local politics through Singapore's media whether in print, broadcast or online, and it will look into incorporating more comprehensive safeguards this year. 
Last June, the MDA required online news sites that report regularly on issues relating to Singapore and have significant reach among readers here to register for an individual licence. 
The regulator explained that this move is to place the sites within a regulatory framework that is consistent with that for traditional news platforms, which already have to obtain such a licence. 
Such sites come under the licensing law umbrella if they attract at least 50,000 unique visitors from Singapore in a month. 
They are required to take down content that breaches certain standards, such as those on racial or religious harmony, within 24 hours of being notified, and put up a performance bond of $50,000.
Thanks to the individual who sent me that news story. Here is a link to the Strait Times story. It will ask you to register before reading it. For some reason I didn't feel comfortable doing that.

So I wonder: Are American students attending Yale-NUS advised against blogging anything that might, in the eyes of the authorities, upset racial or religious harmony? (By the way, does Othello or to Kill a Mockingbird upset racial harmony? Would discussing the works of Richard Dawkins upset religious harmony? How does Yale-NUS handle all this?)

The trouble with laws restricting speech is that governments, one equipped with them, will find creative new ways to stretch their compass. This is true even in democracies, as in the case of the child pornography laws in Canada that have been used against a teen who sexted photos of a rival she found on her boyfriend's phone. It is even more true in authoritarian states, where officials are used to making up the laws as they go along anyway. American students are likely to do something impish to challenge the edges. It's a dangerous mixture, and not a natural melding of cultural traditions.

Let's see. Where else is there a problem of free speech in academia? How about Kansas?

According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, Dec. 19, 2013,
The Kansas Board of Regents unanimously approved new policy language on Wednesday that gives state university leaders the authority “to suspend, dismiss, or terminate from employment any faculty or staff member who makes improper use of social media.” 
Fred Logan, the board’s chairman, told the Lawrence Journal-World that the policy change had been “inspired by” the uproar over a controversial tweet about the National Rifle Association that was posted by David W. Guth, a faculty member at the University of Kansas, in the wake of the September 16 shootings at the Washington Navy Yard. 
The new language is an addition to a section of the Board Policy Manual that deals with suspensions, dismissals, and terminations. It outlines a number of ways in which use of social-media sites like Twitter, LinkedIn, and Facebook might be considered improper. Among them are any communication made through social media that is pursuant to an employee’s official duties and “contrary to the best interests of the university.” Other improper uses include inciting violence or disclosing protected information like student records, or any communication that “impairs discipline by superiors or harmony among co-workers.”
My goodness. Big Brother is Watching. This sounds like the sort of thing you would expect out of Dubai, or Singapore. Firing a professor for saying something "contrary to the best interests of the university"?

The Regents seem to have realized that this rule may be unconstitutional, but the reconsideration is on the grounds of vagueness. Vague it certainly is--how would anyone ever know what was contrary to the best interests of the university? The use of that sweeping language is a dead giveaway for the rule's real intent: the administration wants the authority to fire, at its discretion, anyone who says things that cause trouble. 

But that is what academics do. We say troubling things. We make connections. We challenge the way people think. We make people rethink settled issues. A university where students and faculty can't say things that make others uncomfortable is not a university, not an American university anyway. It might be a very fine training institute. But it wouldn't be a university.


  1. Some random uncensored comments on all of this
    1) Free speech is NOT a western or liberal value. It is a universal good.
    (With some MINOR exceptions which SHOULD NOT be expanded/_
    2) The University aspect- this is a problem of money vs integrity. Alas,
    usually in such a battle my money is on money..
    3) Absolutely agree that universties ARE the place to raise ideas that challenge established notions. (Also a reason for tenure- another discussion)
    4) Harry - your excellent book `Excellence without a Soul' which had somethings in it that were not good about Harvard-- did that give you any problems? I wonder if under the law in Kansas it would have. But see next point
    5) The Kansas law is only about Social Media? Thats very odd in and of itself. So its OKAY to write a book that points out bad stuff, but not
    to blog about it?
    6) And, as a fellow-blogger, is blogging also going to come under attack?
    7) My current biggest concerns with censors is (a) Lipton-Regan blog seems to always block my comments. I then email them and they let it through--- some kind of bug in their spam filter. Or so they claim :-)
    (b) On THIS blog I have a hard time with the CAPTCHA. Lets HOPE these continue to be my biggest problems.

    1. I have taken some criticism for my blogging when commenting on current affairs -- the worry is that people will assume I know more than I really do when I am just commenting on public information. Don't know what I could do about that so I don't let it bother me. I imagine that calling the president a bully, which I did in EWAS, is exactly the sort of thing that would earn you a "not acting in the best interests of the university" label. Not sure how far the Kansas rules go -- they were adopted after a professor made an unkind remark about the NRA on Twitter. And I've told you before -- we have a whole special set of CAPTCHAs just for you!

  2. "A university where students and faculty can't say things that make others uncomfortable is not a university, not an American university anyway. It might be a very fine training institute. But it wouldn't be a university."

    Since Larry Summers was forced to resign in part over comments on women in science that discomforted some, Harry Lewis would question Harvard's status as an American University if he were consistent.

    1. I knew I would hear from you, Quant! We have been over this ground before. Last time I noticed Summers was still a professor. Cf. though I don't think that is exactly right either.

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