How university leaders can support student expression

Amaya Eva Coppens, a medical student at the National Autonomous University of Nicaragua in León, is scheduled to stand trial in February under criminal charges. She is one of the leaders of the 19th of April Student Movement. She was arrested on 10 September 2018 for participating in a nationwide pro-democracy protest.

Coppens was taken into custody without a warrant, held incommunicado and denied access to legal counsel for nine days, and remains detained, awaiting trial.

Since April, the Nicaraguan government has arrested more than 2,000 protesters – many of them students like Coppens – who have participated in demonstrations decrying austerity measures, calling for democratic reforms, and urging the resignation of President Daniel Ortega.

According to a United Nations report, at least 322 people have been killed and more than 2,000 injured as a result of clashes with police and pro-government groups. President Ortega's security forces have used violent and often lethal force to silence critical voices and cultivate a climate of fear.

Unfortunately, the situation in Nicaragua is not unique. According to Free to Think – Scholars at Risk’s latest report, which documents 294 attacks on higher education communities in 47 countries from 1 September 2017 to 31 August 2018 – students all too frequently come under attack for their expressive activity around the world.

Why student expression matters

Students confront pressing global and local issues, from economic stagnation and scarce employment opportunities to gender discrimination and climate change. They demonstrate on campus, petition, write articles, sing songs and create art. Such expression challenges and reinforces democratic processes within higher education, society and the government, encouraging transparency and accountability.

Violent and coercive force is often used to limit and retaliate against student expression, shrinking the space for all members of the higher education community and society at large to engage with new ideas. At a time when totalising ideologies threaten to eclipse the university’s role as a centre for free intellectual inquiry, we must come together to protect and strengthen peaceful student expression.

Students organising for non-violent change

Student expression has more impact and legitimacy when organised through democratic, inclusive and accountable bodies that foster debate and cooperation across political differences before conflicts arise.

The National Union of Students in Norway, for example, is an alliance of almost 200,000 students and 40 student democracies within Norwegian universities. Members, naturally, debate substance and strategy. However, more often than not, they manage to set aside differences to fight for common causes, such as improving financial support, student housing and the quality of education for all Norwegians.

And at a regional level, Norwegian students can amplify their voices and concerns through the European Students’ Union, an umbrella group composed of 45 national unions of students from 39 European countries.

When student expression is under attack, regional bodies and alliances can mobilise international solidarity and support. This past spring, students across France organised sit-ins against the introduction of more stringent university entry requirements.

Many universities chose to remove students by force, resulting in student arrests and injuries. The European Students’ Union spoke out in response to these attacks, formally denouncing the use of violence and reaffirming students’ right to protest in its ‘Resolution on police violence against students’.

In authoritarian countries, where controversial ideas often result in expulsion from university or arrest, students have turned to low-risk methods to make their voices heard. Social media has served as an important open, low-risk space to organise and voice dissent. Amid surveillance and censorship, activists have turned to free encrypted communication apps, such as Signal, and have crafted other creative strategies to get their message out.

In China, for example, where the #MeToo movement gained momentum on campuses, government censors deleted social media posts that included the hashtags #MeToo or #MeTooInChina. Students and other activists began using the hashtag #RiceBunny (pronounced mi tu in Mandarin) to defy the censors and continue their campaign.

Universities supporting student expression

Higher education leaders can and should play a key role in actively strengthening student expression by creating opportunities for constructive dialogue with student leaders. University leaders might consider inviting students to a joint discussion on an institutional affirmation of students’ right to peaceful expression or to a review committee on related university policies.

These conversations recognise students as stakeholders in the university and promote decisions in which the entire campus community is invested.

Despite proactive efforts, attacks on student expression may still occur. When they do, both university and state authorities have the responsibility to conduct prompt, effective and transparent investigations, hold perpetrators accountable, and ensure due process consistent with international human rights standards.

Annabelle Wilmott is a program associate for Scholars at Risk’s membership and communications teams. Scholars at Risk works to protect academic inquiry and expression by arranging temporary academic positions for scholars who are threatened in their home countries, monitoring attacks on higher education through its Academic Freedom Monitoring Project, and through convening faculty, students and other higher education community members to strengthen and promote university values.

Beathe Øgård is the president of the Norwegian Students’ and Academics’ International Assistance Fund (SAIH). SAIH supports students and students’ organisations in their effort to advocate for improved access to inclusive quality higher education and academic freedom without fear or intimidation by campaigning, doing policy advocacy and by partnering with more than 30 organisations in Asia, Southern Africa and Latin America.