It had everything: allegations of threats and intimidation, claims that academic freedom had been interfered with and even a few jokes. It was the commission of inquiry into allegations relating to the Hong Kong Institute of Education. The HK$25 million inquiry heard how former education secretary Arthur Li Kwok-cheung allegedly pressured HKIEd to merge with Chinese University by leaning on its then-president, Paul Morris, to go along with the plan. He was said to have threatened the institute would be 'raped' if it failed to merge. It was also claimed he had scared the institute's former academic vice-president, Bernard Luk Hung-kay, by telling him, 'I'll remember this; you will pay' in a June 2004 phone call for refusing to condemn a protest by redundant teachers. Professor Li vehemently denied the claims, joking at one point that the phrase 'you will pay' was up there with Clint Eastwood's 'make my day'. Professor Luk, who triggered the inquiry by posting a '10,000-character' letter on HKIEd's intranet detailing the original allegations in February 2007, told the inquiry he was frightened of Professor Li. The inquiry, instigated by Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen, first sat in late March 2007 before chairman Mr Justice Wally Yeung Chun-kuen and commissioner Lee Jark-pui, and the report was published in June that year. Although the report said Professor Li 'more likely than not used the word 'rape'' in connection with a merger proposal and was 'likely' to have said 'you will pay', it found there to be insufficient evidence that he had interfered with HKIEd's autonomy or tried to force it to merge with CUHK. Former permanent secretary for education and manpower Fanny Law Fan Chiu-fun did not fare so well. Mrs Law was alleged to have asked Professor Morris on four occasions to silence academics critical of government education reforms and to have phoned institute academics directly to take issue with their views, often in an ill-tempered manner. It was the phone calls to one academic in particular that led to a judicial review of one aspect of the commission's findings. The inquiry heard that, in October 2002, Mrs Law complained to Ip Kin-yuen, then an HKIEd lecturer in education policy and administration and now a school principal, about a seminar promoting 'small-class teaching', which was not government policy at that time. In December 2003, she had an argument with him over articles he had published about increased teacher workloads because of education reforms. The inquiry found against Mrs Law, saying it was 'improper for someone of [her] position to attempt to silence critics by addressing them personally or through their superiors, irrespective of the motive. 'Direct contact of a senior government official with academic members of an educational institution to express his opinion on or to protest against the critical views of the academic members, even without any threat of sanction or reprisal, would constitute improper interference with academic freedom,' the report said. The report led to Mrs Law resigning as head of the Independent Commission Against Corruption. The inquiry had heard from some of the most colourful characters in the recent history of Hong Kong education administration, none of whom survived in their roles at the time. Professor Li was replaced as education chief by Michael Suen Ming-yeung in a reshuffle, Professor Luk had already returned to York University in Toronto, Canada, and HKIEd's council decided not to renew Professor Morris's contract. He is now a professor at University of London's Institute of Education. Mr Suen announced in September 2007 that the government would be seeking a judicial review of one aspect of the commission's conclusions. The two-day hearing, in October last year in the Court of First Instance before Mr Justice Michael Hartmann and Mr Justice Jeremy Poon Shiu-chor, handed down its judgment last Friday. Many observers interpreted it as having exonerated Mrs Law by finding that her direct approach to academics did not constitute a breach of an institution's academic freedom. 'We do not see that it would be improper for a senior official to privately engage an academic in order to state government's views, even to the extent of arguing that the academic should in the result change his or her views. That is all part of the ebb and flow of free debate,' the judgment said. A 'confrontational approach' by a government official may have a 'chilling effect' but that alone would not be sufficient to breach academic freedom. Mr Suen said the judgment showed 'we have all along respected academic freedom', Professor Li hailed it as demonstrating that 'from beginning to end, there had been no one interfering with academic freedom', and Mrs Law said: 'I am pleased to see that justice is done and that 'academic freedom' is put in a proper perspective.' But Margaret Ng Ngoi-yee, a barrister and Civic Party lawmaker, told the Legislative Council this week that she thought the judgment had been misinterpreted by officials and much of the press. 'It is imperative for us to read and analyse the judgment with great care if mischief is not to be done to academic freedom,' she said. Other commentators made similar points based on paragraphs eight to 10 of the judgment which said: 'One aspect - and one aspect only - of the report has given rise to the application for judicial review. 'In the report, the commission criticised certain approaches made by ... Mrs Law, to Mr Ip, a member of the faculty of the Institute of Education ... the commission found that Mrs Law's direct approach to Mr Ip to remonstrate with him constituted an attack on his academic freedom.' The judicial review had not been asked to rule on Mrs Law's 'indirect' approach to academics' superiors, in this case her phone calls to Professor Morris, which, the commission said 'even if well-intended ... constituted an improper interference with Mr Ip's ... academic freedom'. Crucially, the review judgment went on to say in paragraph 18: 'No complaint has been made as to the correctness of the commission's finding that Mrs Law's indirect approach; that is, her approach to the superior of the academics, was improper.' Professor Morris, citing paragraph 18, said: 'The judicial review concludes, in my view wholly reasonably, that Mrs Law had the right to speak to Mr Ip and any other academics directly. However, [it] has not quashed or queried the commission's finding that ... Mrs Law interfered in academic freedom.' Professor Luk also noted that the review had confined itself to the matter of whether the commission had implied a 'prohibitive principle' potentially limiting the way officials could approach academics directly and said that although it 'skirted' with the issue of academic freedom, it did not 'resolve' it. 'The commission found [Mrs Law] had engaged Mr Ip in a manner that at the least gave the semblance of intimidation and reprisal. The constitutional violation therefore, so it would appear, lay in the deterrent or 'chilling effect' of Mrs Law's actions, it being remembered that she was a very senior member of government and would, ostensibly at least, have had some compulsive power over the Institute of Education even if only indirectly,' he said. 'The implications of this judgment for the future of academic freedom and freedom of expression in Hong Kong may be very significant and far-reaching.' In fact, the judicial review could not have made a judgment about the findings relating to Mrs Law because she did not instigate it. It was brought by the secretary of education on a technicality, seeking clarification as to whether the commissioners had implied a 'prohibitive principle' in the way officials approached academics. Speaking for Mr Suen, who was on leave this week, his deputy, Kenneth Chen Wei-on, said the government was worried about the implications for future policy. 'Our legal advice was that the commission concluded that direct contact of a senior government official with a professor to discuss a view that is not the same as the professor or engage in a debate with the professor even without any threats would be improper, so it was important that we clarified this point,' he said. 'It is part of our job to engage all stakeholders in education and academics are people we regularly look towards for guidance.' Mr Chen said the judicial review was about nothing other than seeking clarification. 'It seems to me we sought the clarification and we got it,' he said. Education sector lawmaker Cheung Man-kwong said he agreed with the education secretary that a judicial review was necessary. 'Michael Suen told me the judicial review wasn't meant to challenge the conclusions of the commission report. He simply wanted to find a way to communicate with other universities in the future,' he said. 'They were afraid that if they talked to academics ... the public might think they were intervening in academic freedom.' Legislator and lawyer Albert Ho Chun-yan said the purpose of the review was clear. 'What the secretary wished to clarify was whether or not a government official in a position of power should be prohibited from expressing their views to members of academic institutions and, if so, how that prohibition should be framed, what the perimeter of that prohibition should be.' Mark Mason, a professor of comparative and international education and development at HKIEd, said he thought Mr Justice Hartmann's judgment that the engagement of officials with academics 'even to the extent of arguing ... is all part ebb and flow of free debate' was going too far. 'I find it difficult ... to accept entirely his finding to the effect that it would not 'be improper for a senior official to privately engage an academic in order to state government's views, even to the extent of arguing that the academic should in the result change his or her views',' Professor Mason said. 'In the normal flow of conversation at a social or academic gathering, certainly. But in repeated phone calls to that effect, no. 'Mr Justice Hartmann, in seeing no such threat to Mr Ip as an academic in Hong Kong, may have over-reached himself in claiming that 'context is everything'. It clearly isn't, and his own justifications underlying this judgment belie that: principle, law, precedent and the like are all to be taken into account, as he well does.' The reference in the judgment to a South African definition of academic freedom, he said, was ironic. 'It is more than a little ironic that some academics publicly identified by senior members of South Africa's apartheid government as excessively critical of their policies were subsequently killed by death squads, later identified as operating in league with one or another organ of the apartheid state.' Professor Mason said confrontations between senior members of the government and academics about their views were always to be welcomed in the 'ebb and flow of free debate'. 'But free debate assumes also that it takes place in public, according to public standards of rationality, and that it is conducted without even the semblance of intimidation or reprisal, a stance for which Mrs Law was indeed found by the commission of inquiry, and not challenged by Mr Justice Hartmann, to be responsible.' Mrs Law yesterday said she was confident the judgment had cleared her. 'In a nutshell, I believe I am exonerated by [Mr Justice] Hartmann's judgment and stand by my earlier comment,' she said. 'First and foremost, it has to be recognised that the judicial review was instituted by the secretary for education. He could not seek to overturn the commission's findings directly as he does not have a direct interest in the case ... however, the judgment speaks for itself. 'Based on the two criteria for establishing 'interference in academic freedom', i.e. making a threat of sanction and the power to deliver the sanction, I am vindicated. It is relevant to note that the commission of inquiry's report in June 2007 confirmed that I did not demand the dismissal of any academic (the findings on allegation two) in my telephone conversation with Professor Morris. 'The earlier conclusion that allegation two was 'partially established' was based on the commission's misguided opinion that senior officers should not approach academics directly or indirectly to lodge any complaint. My lawyer has confirmed my interpretation of the judgment,' she said.