After a Chinese-student group complained about posters criticizing China’s human-rights record, George Washington University’s president called them offensive. Then he reversed himself and said they are protected speech.
The free-speech controversy
began when posters satirizing the Beijing Olympic Games as a way to call attention to Chinese human-rights abuses appeared on the GW campus. The university’s Chinese Students and Scholars Association criticized the posters — which featured images such as an athlete snowboarding atop a surveillance camera and a curler throwing a Covid virus across the ice — as “racist” and an “attack on the Chinese nation.”
The student group called for those who hung the posters to be punished and for a “public apology to all Chinese and all Asian students.” Interim President Mark S. Wrighton appeared to agree, saying in a message that was posted on Twitter that he was “saddened by this terrible event” and promising to find out who was responsible.
Wrighton’s comments quickly came under fire. Critics said the president was squashing campus speech and pointed out that if students from China or Hong Kong put up the posters, they and their families could face repercussions if their names were made public.
Wrighton backtracked: “Upon full understanding, I do not view these posters as racist; they are political statements. There is no university investigation underway, and the university will not take any action against the students who displayed the posters.”
The blow-up underscores twin tensions:
College leaders must be alert to discrimination against Asian and Asian American students and scholars. But some Chinese students have sought to shut down speech
that they perceive as critical of the Chinese government, raising concerns that Chinese censorship will effectively spread to U.S. campuses.
I spoke with Sarah McLaughlin, director of targeted advocacy for the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a group that advocates for free speech.
How does the presence of large numbers of international students, some from countries that don’t have the same standards or expectations for free expression, complicate campus debates around speech?
When international students constitute significant numbers of a campus population, I think they can reasonably expect that administrators will respond to their concerns seriously. But it can become a free speech issue, especially in terms of CSSAs, when those students expect their preferences for political censorship to be recognized. Administrators are responsible for responding to accusations of discrimination on their campus, but there have been a growing number of cases of students alleging that criticism of their country, most often China, constitutes bias against them.
Yet it’s a possibility Chinese students could have hung the posters. Is there a balancing act colleges need to strike to protect the speech of students from countries like China, even if it’s from their own countrymen?
Administrators have thus far been almost entirely absent from the conversation about how to protect international students’ speech rights, and it’s a real shame that they have essentially left this fight up to students and faculty. In cases like the one at GW, at minimum administrators need to first think about what the consequences would be for the student if they did choose to investigate anonymous political speech. It troubles me that they did not recognize that immediately.
Should colleges be setting campus speech policies that specifically recognize the significant presence of large numbers of international students on campuses today?
I think campuses would benefit from giving their students — both international and American — better education at the start of their college careers about their speech rights and what they can and cannot expect from administrators. That would help both the students who might wrongly expect their campus to censor political speech and students who may want to engage in such speech but don’t know if they’ll be protected. I think campuses should treat seriously the idea that they may be a rare opportunity for students from repressive countries to speak their mind, and ensure that their policies and procedures respect that opportunity.