On December 16, 2017, administrators from the Hong Kong College of Technology (HKCT) reportedly declined to confer degrees to at least 12 students for engaging in a peaceful protest during the university’s graduation ceremony.
According to media reports, two social work students at HKCT — whose identities have not been disclosed — refused to stand during the playing of the national anthem, reportedly on the grounds that “…the Chinese government was not serving the people and they, as social work students, should speak out.” College officials noticed that not everyone was standing for the anthem, cut its playback, and ordered the two students to leave. At least ten more students then followed the students out of the ceremony in support. HKCT officials later refused to grant degree certificates to the two social work students and the students who expressed support by walking out of the ceremony.
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.