Report Focuses on Speech Codes for Students Studying Abroad

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A new report analyzing college policies on the voice and political participation of students studying abroad has found that colleges often struggle to balance student rights and student safety.

Foundation for Individual Rights in Education report discusses the tensions colleges face when sending students abroad, including to countries where speech rights are much more limited than in the United States . FIRE, which works against restrictive speech codes, acknowledges that universities “find themselves in a delicate position” when trying to balance freedom of speech and security, but warns against adopting vague bans on student speech or political expression.

“University policies on speech in study abroad programs should make it clear that students are bound by the legal systems of their destination country, that they may be required to leave the program and the country if problems arise. legal or serious threats of violence are posed in response to their expression, and that administrators may be unable to provide assistance in certain situations, ”argues the report. “Policies should make it clear which phrase has the potential to violate foreign laws or customs or the policies of partner institutions and what consequences students can expect from state officials, immigration authorities and administrators. partner academics in discourse. But universities should not develop vague policies that create further confusion among students and the potential for self-censorship and administrative abuse. “

The report, titled “Study Abroad, Speak Out: How American Universities Are Approaching Expression in Study Abroad Programs,” says local context matters.

“Students traveling to France, for example, should not receive the same warnings about expressive activity as students traveling to China,” he said.

“The main takeaways should be that universities should go a little bit harder to make sure their students understand what speech problems abroad mean specifically to them,” said Sarah McLaughlin, director of the targeted advocacy for FIRE and author of the report. “The other side is that universities have to be very careful to understand the role they play, where they have to warn students and teach them, but they don’t necessarily need to adopt oppressive discourse codes from their own. own simply because they send students to countries with these codes.

FIRE’s report is based on an analysis of written policies from 100 universities on student conduct while studying abroad. The survey found that 39 of those universities had public warnings against speaking abroad, including warnings against participating in demonstrations or demonstrations or posting political opinions on social media.

According to the report, these warnings generally alert students to the risks of engaging in certain speaking activities abroad “but are not associated with clear academic disciplinary action.”

FIRE’s investigation found that 18 universities, including some public universities, “have gone further and developed policies that confusedly incorporate foreign laws into university conduct policies or govern what students can say to students. abroad, raising questions about the role of an American university in managing student expression abroad. “

The report notes, for example, that Georgetown University’s conditions for participation in study abroad programs state that participating in rallies or “participating in political activities” puts students at risk of harm. ‘be fired from the program.

“’Political activities’ is an incredibly broad term,” the report states. “Would wearing a pro-LGBT pride badge count as political activity? Would writing an editorial on foreign policy count? What about a tweet from a student criticizing the president of his host country? This is not clear from Georgetown policy, which means that students participating in the university’s study abroad program can reasonably conclude that they should self-censor for potentially political speech rather than risk it. to be fired from their program.

McLaughlin said she was particularly troubled by the broad language included in the student conduct and discipline policy of the University of California’s Overseas Education Program, which describes actions that ” UCEAP officials, endanger the well-being of a student [or] that of other students. These actions listed include: “violation of the laws of the host country or institution”, “overt abuse of the customs and mores of the community” and “inappropriate, disrespectful, rude or aggressive communication or actions towards people. others, and uncivil or communication behavior.

Georgetown media relations officials and the University of California president’s office did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Melissa Torres, CEO of Forum on Education Abroad, an association for study abroad professionals, observed that the FIRE report “only analyzed policies and did not include discussion with persons responsible for creating or implementing these policies ”.

“A single study of this type cannot give a complete picture of how students in study abroad programs are prepared by their study abroad office on campus and resident directors on site. to exercise their rights securely abroad, ”Torres said via email. “In general, students have many more points of contact with the staff and faculty involved in the preparation and delivery of the EA. [education abroad] programs in the United States and on-site in which rules like those that FIRE has identified in the policies they have studied can be contextualized, explained, and explored in more depth, especially when students head to places known to be particularly strict or related to particular issues (eg religious freedoms, anti-LBGTQ laws, etc.).

“International law and risk management are complex and best practices in our field require institutions to refer to multiple sources to inform their risk management decisions,” Torres said. “Unfortunately, this sometimes means that being transparent with students and their families cannot be accomplished in a single sentence or by referring to a single source of external information. There should be a certain level of maturity and responsibility expected of students who participate in all types of programs sponsored by their college or university, including study abroad.

Andrea Bordeau, President of Pulse: International Health and Safety Professionals in Higher Education and Director of Global Safety and Security at Vanderbilt University, said: “There is a delicate balance as a student traveler – when you go to another country, you are essentially agreeing to abide by local laws and customs. For universities, for a long time, the mission has been to say to students: “Do you know what this means; are you comfortable with that? ‘ … Our duty of care is such that we will guide students on how any decision they make may affect their risk profile.

Bordeau said that one of the reasons colleges might have more restrictive policies is that some are more limited than others in the resources they have available to advise students on specific country circumstances or for them. help in an emergency.

“It’s something universities have to balance in some way with how much resources they have and what they can provide,” she said. “I think some will never be able to direct students that they need to do their own research and prepare, and others will have much more capacity to tailor their advice individually and prepare better.”

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