In July 2016, students at the Catholic University of Temuco occupied the campus’s “E” building to protest President Michelle Bachelet’s Higher Education Reform Project. On January 6, 2017, the university suspended student leaders and members of the Federation of Students Pablo Figueroa, Felipe Venegas and Saúl Sepúlveda for two semesters. The three students were accused of blocking the entrance to the campus and university buildings; purposefully damaging and destroying furniture and other university property; and taking action that restrained the normal functioning of the academic exam schedule.
Sepùlveda took legal action against the university, arguing that there was no evidentiary basis for the charges against him, and that Figueroa, Venegas and he were unfairly disciplined by the university because of the leadership role that they played in the Federation of Students. The Temuco Appeal Court agreed, finding that the university had violated the students’ right to association and their constitutional guarantee of equality before the law.
Scholars at Risk is concerned about disproportionate disciplinary actions against students in retaliation for the peaceful exercise of the right to academic freedom, freedom of expression and freedom of association – conduct which is expressly protected under international human rights instruments, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. In addition to the harm to the immediate victims, such incidents have a chilling effect on academic freedom and undermine democratic society generally. Universities have a responsibility to refrain from wrongful disciplinary action taken against students for exercising their rights to academic freedom, freedom of expression, and freedom of association.