Anger at punishment for students' pro-independence posts

March 4, 2019   University World News

The expulsion of a student and punishments meted out to three others over pro-independence postings on a university noticeboard dubbed 'democracy wall' has led to a renewed outcry over free speech on Hong Kong's campuses.

More than a dozen pro-democracy lawmakers in Hong Kong called for the punishments to be reversed after Hong Kong Polytechnic University (PolyU) on 1 March expelled masters degree student Gerald Ho. The university's former student union leader Lam Wing-hang, now a third-year student, was suspended for a year. Two other students were ordered to do 60-120 hours of community service.

Lam said during a press conference last Friday: We were doing the right thing and striving for freedom of speech and academic freedom for the university and we should not be punished. The university made these decisions to suppress the students.

A spokesperson for the Hong Kong Democratic Party said the punishments were too harsh and said the university might be trying to deter students from campus protests with disproportionate punishments.

Around 20 student groups, including Hong Kong University and the Chinese University of Hong Kong student unions, issued a joint statement saying the university's decision deprived the affected students of their rights and suppressed freedom of speech and expression in the education sector.

The punishments were handed down by the university administration after an incident in which the campus 'democracy wall' noticeboard was used, on the fourth anniversary of Hong Kong's massive 2014 pro-democracy street protests known as the Umbrella Movement, to post messages supporting Hong Kong's independence from China.

Some posters put up in September also backed the Hong Kong National Party, which supports independence. The National Party was banned in September 2018 by the Hong Kong administration on national security grounds.

The PolyU student union refused university demands to remove the pro-independence material. But when the university administration covered up the posters with sheets of red paper, it led to an altercation involving some 10 students with university staff, described by the university administration as unruly behaviour.

At the time, the university appeared to cede to student demands to keep the wall but in January set up a disciplinary investigation against the students.

The university also said the students blockaded senior university administrators and prevented them from leaving their offices.

The disciplinary committee concluded on 1 March that the students' behaviour constituted misconduct and breached several university rules including defamation and assault or battery against a staff member, and wilful damages to or defacement of university property.

Deterioration in freedom of speech

Ho said at the press conference that the reason he stood up against the university administration was because Hong Kong's freedom of speech had already deteriorated a lot.

Lam said students will look into ways to overturn the university's decision, including the possibility of a judicial review. He denied assaulting or insulting anyone, or damaging the university's reputation.

Our freedom of speech was stripped, so who damaged the reputation [of the university]? I believe it was, in fact, the [university] management. The PolyU student union's current executive committee said in a statement it strongly condemned the university for trying to silence students, preventing them from making politically sensitive comments.

In a statement, the Hong Kong Professional Teachers' Union said the punishments were too heavy and urged PolyU to reconsider its decision as well as explain its ruling publicly to allay public concerns.

The university declined to comment on matters related to individual students, citing privacy concerns. The university's disciplinary committee made its decisions after hearing from the students involved and considering all the available information, it said in a statement

But the decision came as Wang Yang, head of China's political advisory body the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, said in a work report at the start of the two-week annual session that unequivocally opposing Hong Kong independence was a priority for Beijing.