‘Undefined’ reputational damage clause worries students

Students at the University of Hong Kong (HKU) could be expelled or fined over any conduct or activities that are judged to bring the city’s top-ranked higher education institution into disrepute, according to new regulations brought in by the university after being approved by the city’s Legislative Council.

The controversial amendment to the university’s statutes came into force on 20 October and included “conduct considered to be bringing the university into disrepute”, among behaviour that can be judged by the university’s disciplinary committee.

However, the university has not outlined what constitutes ‘disrepute’. An HKU spokesperson on Friday 20 October was unable to say how students would be informed of their rights under the latest change in the university’s statutes. “I don’t have any further information at this moment,” the spokesperson told University World News.

The university’s handbook for new students has not yet been updated.

‘Vague and unnecessary’ amendments

A student member on the HKU Council, Casey Chik, had earlier criticised the amendment, initially approved by the Legislative Council in June, for being vague and unnecessary. He said at the time that there are “different mechanisms to manage similar incidents. I don’t see any circumstances this amendment can be applied to”.

He added that students would be concerned over how the new powers would be used by the university.

In a submission to the Legislative Council in August, members of the HKU Court, a group elected by HKU students and alumni, said the amendment was a “major one”, yet “court members were not given any opportunity to have meaningful exchange of opinions” in any forum.

In its submission, members of the HKU Court strongly opposed the amendment.

It said: “Universities should be subject to reasonable criticism, which could constitute a disrepute to the university. The Disrepute Clause, with power improperly exercised, will stifle [the] culture of free discussion which could have been beneficial to the university and society as a whole.”

Reputational damage

HKU said in its own submission to the Legislative Council in August that the new clause was “proposed to protect HKU from reputational damage and to educate our students of the dire effect of such an offence. Students’ academic freedom and freedom of expression continue to be protected and valued under the Academic Freedom Policy and the Code of Academic Conduct”.

It added that students charged under the new rule would have the right to make representations and defend themselves and would have the right of appeal against any guilty verdict.

The university administration argued: “A number of local universities have similar provisions in their student disciplinary procedures; and similar provisions also exist in many overseas academic institutions.”

The submission named the University of Birmingham, University College London, University of Edinburgh and University of Warwick in the United Kingdom, and the University of Western Australia.

But student and alumni groups said citing other universities’ use of the reputation clause was “without proper context and can be misleading”.

Additionally, they criticised the “unclear” powers of the vice-chancellor in the matter, saying “the unreasonably large discretion in making an order has already caused significant concern among the student community”.

The university has already been able to take punitive action against students and student groups under its existing rules, particularly since Beijing imposed the National Security Law on Hong Kong in July 2020.

Conviction of HKU students

The amendments to the statutes come as four HKU students, who faced charges of “advocating terrorism” under Hong Kong’s national security law in August 2021, were found guilty on alternative charges last month.

The students are Kinson Cheung, who was the former chairman of the HKU student union council; Charles Kwok, then-president of the HKU student union executive committee; and two other HKU student union council members Chris Todorovski and Anthony Yung – all aged between 21 and 22.

The four were members of the HKU student union council in July 2021 when the student body passed a resolution expressing sympathy over the death of Leung Kin-fai, a man who took his own life immediately after he stabbed a uniformed officer on 1 July 2021, the day that Hong Kong was marking 24 years since its return to Chinese rule.

The city’s authorities described the stabbing as a “lone-wolf local terrorist act”, adding that those who mourned Leung’s death were “encouraging violence and inciting hatred”.

The student union resolution was withdrawn days later, after the government and the university issued statements condemning the students for “glorifying violent attacks”. Members of the student body resigned and the university de-recognised the union and barred at least 30 students who signed the resolution from entering the HKU campus.

The HKU union was disbanded that same year.

The original terrorism charge, which could have led to a decade behind bars, was dismissed but the former student leaders were convicted on 11 September based on guilty pleas on an alternative charge of “incitement to wound with intent”.

Sentencing to follow

They are expected to be sentenced on 30 October and have been denied bail.

HKU students, speaking to University World News on condition of anonymity, said terrorism was a “horrendous charge to be brought against students who had merely passed a resolution and then withdrawn it”.

In court the district judge, Adriana Noelle Tse Ching, said that on 20 September the students only withdrew the resolution after it caused an “international public outcry”.

“They chose to amplify it by putting the mistake on an international stage,” she said in response to the defence lawyers’ argument that the mistakes of the four students had been “amplified”.