Yes to free speech, no to free-for-all on university campuses

William Kirby, a professor at Harvard, says universities in Hong Kong should allow open debate on all issues including independence, yet his own institution, among others in the US and Britain, sees fit to disinvite speakers

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 29 November, 2017, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 29 November, 2017, 12:00am

Such lofty sentiment! William Kirby, a professor at Harvard and an adviser to the University of Hong Kong on governance, has been quoted as saying that on university campuses, any subject should be up for discussion. That was the case at Harvard, he said, as long as it was conducted within the boundaries of propriety.

The good professor must have been speaking in a moment of moral exuberance. I am sure it isn’t the case with Harvard. It is not the case with most American universities.

‘Independence debate should be fair game on campus’

“At a place like Harvard, anyone can invite anybody to give a speech … it’s a mistake to keep people from speaking,” he said. “A great university must be a place where there is not even one question, let alone seven, that cannot be discussed.”

In September, Harvard’s famous John F. Kennedy School of Government, the alma mater of many of our top civil servants, including former chief executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen, disinvited Chelsea Manning as a visiting fellow following complaints from CIA Director Mike Pompeo, former CIA deputy director Michael Morell and ex-Trump White House spokesman Sean Spicer, among others.

Manning was the army intelligence analyst who leaked classified information, through WikiLeaks, exposing the wanton killings of civilians, including journalists, in Iraq and Afghanistan by the US military. She served seven years in jail.

A visiting fellow, says the school’s website, is expected to give speeches and engage students on “topical issues of today”.

This summer, Harvard rescinded admission offers to at least 10 students after they were exposed exchanging sexist and racist images and messages in a private Facebook group. This came as Kirby’s boss, Harvard president Drew Gilpin Faust, defended free speech, offensive or not, before the class of 2017.

Opinion: Hong Kong’s free speech defenders are eroding our freedoms

At many US and British universities, in what British philosopher Roger Scruton calls a revived “notion of heresy”, it’s no longer taboo to disinvite or bar speakers from campuses because some students or teachers disagree with their views or find them offensive. For a list of such incidents in the US, visit the website of the non-profit Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.

In context, Kirby was asked about discussing Hong Kong independence. I agree with him that it’s fair game for rational discussion. But when students move from discussion to protest, such as plastering public places with posters advocating independence, and physically intimidating mainland students by screaming obscenities, university administrators have the right and duty to intervene and halt such activities.