On November 14, 2023, the University of Hong Kong canceled a planned talk on judicial independence and criminal justice by Timothy Owens, a British lawyer.
The talk, which was to be co-sponsored by the Boase Cohen & Collins (BC&C) legal firm, was titled “Judges, Democracy and the Criminal Law.” It had been scheduled for November 17 and would have been open to the public. Event advertisements described its focus as “the growing threats to judicial independence and the rule of law, with particular focus on the administration of criminal justice.”
The university’s law faculty forwarded an email announcing the cancellation to those who had signed up, citing “unforeseen circumstances.” The law faculty stated that they had been under pressure to postpone the event, but not cancel it. Owens had also been scheduled to speak at the China Club, a private members’ club in Central Hong Kong. That talk was also canceled.
The reasons for the talks’ cancellations were unclear. However, Hong Kong authorities have recently engaged in a crackdown on talking about the independence of the judicial system. Moreover, Owens has previously been linked to a high profile national security case in Hong Kong. In 2021, Jimmy Lai—a British citizen and founder of Next Media, which published a popular pro-democracy newspaper Apple Daily that Hong Kong authorities shut down in 2022—requested that Owens represent him in a national security trial. Lai was arrested in December 2020 for his activities during Hong Kong’s 2019 pro-democracy protests, and was charged with colluding with foreign forces under the city’s national security law. Hong Kong’s High Court initially approved Owens to defend Lai, but Beijing’s legislative body, the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress, reversed the decision arguing that representation by a foreign lawyer would undermine national security. The Standing Committee also advised the Hong Kong Immigration Department to reject any potential application for a work visa filed by Owen.
Scholars at Risk is concerned about a university canceling an event on apparently politically-motivated grounds. State and higher education officials should protect academic freedom and take all available steps to ensure the exercise of academic freedom, including during on-campus, academic events. The disinvitation of speakers on political grounds undermines academic freedom and democratic society generally.