University of Malaya authorities have taken disciplinary action against a group of students after they issued a silent protest during a speech by President Barack Obama during a youth town hall meeting at the university on April 26, 2014. The students held up placards challenging the US-initiated Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPPA).
On May 8, 2014, the university initiated actions against four of the student protesters, charging them with breaking university rules and damaging the interests and reputation of the university. The university served the students with “show-cause” letters, demanding that they explain their actions or face disciplinary action. A letter to one student alleged that his actions had “damaged or jeopardised the interests, welfare and the good name of Universiti Malaya” . . . and that his “actions have clearly breached the rules of the town hall meeting that prohibit any placards from being brought in or displayed during the meeting”.
As of this writing, the actions against the students remained pending, despite challenges to the university’s actions, including by US Ambassador to Malaysia Joseph Y. Yun. In a May 21 letter to the University’s Student’s Representative Council, Ambassador Yun stated, “the United States firmly supports the right to freedom of expression and association, including the right to peaceful protest without fear of reprisal. The protest was brief and peaceful, and the United States found no reason to raise the matter with the University nor to ask the University to investigate the students involved.”
Scholars at Risk is concerned about the apparent retaliation against students for nonviolent expression of views on contemporary policy questions at an on-campus event. Academic freedom protects the right of members of higher education communities, including students, to engage in peaceful expression and association. Retaliation or other attempts to limit such expression by force or coercion undermine academic freedom, institutional autonomy and democratic society generally. States and higher education leaders have a responsibility to resist efforts to punish academic and expressive conduct, and to publicly reaffirm support for academic freedom, institutional autonomy and related values when such incidents may arise. Scholars at Risk therefore welcomes the statement of the U.S. Ambassador supporting the students and reaffirming support for free inquiry and expression.