Tehan tells UNSW: Prize free speech

04 Aug Tehan tells UNSW: Prize free speech

Fergus Hunter and Eryk Bagshaw – The Sydney Morning Herald – Tuesday 04 August

UNSW’s decision to remove social media posts about the erosion of human rights in Hong Kong has attracted a warning from Education Minister Dan Tehan, who said universities should prize free speech as a pillar of Australian democracy.

The university was embroiled in controversy over the weekend when it deleted social media posts and altered an online article following an online protest from Chinese nationalists. The backlash was fuelled by a Sydney-based lawyer with links to the Chinese consulate, who called for students to launch a campaign against UNSW to correct the university’s political views.

The original Twitter post linking to the article, which was based on comments from Human Rights Watch Australia director and UNSW adjunct lecturer Elaine Pearson, quoted her warning that “now is a pivotal moment to bring attention to the rapidly deteriorating situation in Hong Kong”.

Ms Pearson called for the United Nations to establish a special envoy to monitor human rights in Hong Kong as the Chinese government cracks down on dissent and winds back the city’s legal autonomy from Beijing.

Responding to the initial online backlash, the university added a second tweet saying the “opinions expressed by our academics do not always represent the views of UNSW”.

The subsequent decision to delete both posts attracted bipartisan criticism on Monday from federal MPs, who labelled it “craven” and accused the university of “cowardice”.

Mr Tehan said universities were autonomous institutions but the government was strongly committed to protecting academic freedom on campuses.

“Freedom of speech is a pillar of our democracy. Universities should be institutions that protect freedom of speech, debate and the challenge of ideas,” he said.

A university spokeswoman said the posts were deleted because they were “not in line with our policies – and the views of an academic were being misconstrued as representing the university”.

The article became temporarily unavailable on Saturday morning at its original location on the university website’s general news section before appearing in the business and law section labelled as opinion.

Like other major Australian universities, UNSW is heavily dependent on Chinese students. About 16,000 Chinese students account for a quarter of the university’s student body.

Huang Yuwen, a Sydney-based lawyer and UNSW graduate with links to the Chinese consulate, helped orchestrate the online campaign against the university.

On Saturday, he called for students to lobby the Chinese consulate in Sydney to directly intervene in the matter. He said he was “[a]shamed to be a graduate of UNSW law” and urged other students to contact UNSW law dean Andrew Lynch with their concerns.

“Hope everyone can join together to let UNSW delete [the] improper tweet,” he said on WeChat. “Calling for students with the same idea to bring pressure to the school together. Stop the wrong political view in our university.”

The university has since faced a barrage of critical social media posts and emails from Chinese nationals that said Ms Pearson’s article was ignorant, discriminatory, “severely offended” students, and amounted to interference in China’s internal affairs.

Chinese state media outlet People’s Daily reported Mr Huang gave classes backed by the Chinese consulate in April. Mr Huang, who was contacted for comment, advised students on their legal rights and on protecting their interests while studying abroad at the event.

Liberal senator James Paterson called the university’s actions “craven” and said they were evidence of the “compromised relationship many of our universities have with communist China”. Liberal MP Tim Wilson accused the university of “cowardice,” while Labor senator Tony Sheldon labelled it censorship and said “we have a big problem”.

Liberal Dave Sharma said the university had seemingly caved on core academic freedoms in response to an “orchestrated campaign of online intimidation”.

Ms Pearson said she was seeking clarification from UNSW on what had happened and that advocating for the human rights of Hongkongers should not be controversial.

“I hope UNSW will reaffirm its protection of academic freedom and make it clear that academic freedom does not mean caving to censorship demands by some people over views they disagree with,” she said.

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