Study warns colleges cancel student speech rights when they study abroad

While students enrolled in America colleges who choose to study overseas are faced with an entirely new set of standards and rights while outside of the U.S., a new study from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education now reveals that some of those provisions that would violate the Constitution inside the U.S. actually come from those American institutes of higher ed.

The foundation reported its survey results confirmed, “Of the 100 institutions surveyed, many rely on State Department resources about student travel and warnings about the risks of engaging in speech or protest abroad — but some also impose restrictive speech codes.

“For example, 18 institutions, including Northwestern University and the University of California System, crafted their own policies that confusingly incorporate foreign laws into campus conduct policies or govern what students can say abroad, creating even more uncertainty for students about their speech rights.

“Some of these policies would clearly violate the First Amendment if applied in the United States. Michigan State University’s policy is one of them, asserting to students that ‘As a condition of participation in the Education Abroad program, you agree to not participate in and to avoid any demonstrations and protests.'”

The restrictions, FIRE reported, conflict with the colleges’ “laudable promises of free speech on campus.”

Explained FIRE, “Thirty-nine institutions, including the University of Southern California and Carnegie Mellon University, warn students against certain kinds of expression abroad, especially speech on social media and at protests. USC advises students to ‘Avoid crowds, protest groups or other potentially volatile situations… Do not get involved in any social or political unrest or illegal movements, no matter how sympathetic you are with the cause or the people involved.’ These policies, while presumably well-intentioned, don’t always provide the necessary information to help students understand their individual risk.”

“Colleges are in a delicate position when coordinating student travel and programs overseas — but that does not mean that their own policies should mirror unjust overseas speech restrictions,” said Sarah McLaughlin, FIRE’s director of targeted advocacy and author of the report. “Not every study abroad destination will be a haven for free expression, but school officials have a responsibility to prepare their students for travel in a way that sets accurate expectations and honors fundamental rights.”

The report, called “Studying Abroad, Speaking Out,” includes details on students’ rights abroad and warnings about expressive conduct.

“Ensuring students understand the censorship threats they may face abroad should be a basic priority for colleges with study abroad programs,” continued McLaughlin. “FIRE is here to help administrators navigate the complexities of protecting their students’ rights as they travel overseas.”

The varying legal environments mean issues on which comments may produce a response include “religion, politics, gender, sexuality, protest, or other sensitive issues.”

“Students choosing to take part in study abroad programs, especially those who have not extensively traveled before, naturally need to be given basic information about navigating life abroad: information about healthcare, immigration policies, currencies, housing, and so forth. But they should also be counseled about their rights, their destination country’s legal system, and the differences between the rights they enjoy in the United States and those that they do and do not enjoy in the country they intend to visit,” the report said.

The report suggests travelers eras any sensitive photos, comments or other materials from social media pages, cameras, laptops or other devices if they go to high-risk areas.

It also suggests for student journalists, “Find out if you must register with a local press syndicate or receive official press credentials. Sometimes, countries may tolerate ‘informal’ journalists until there is criticism of the local government. Not having a press credential might be used as a reason to deport or even imprison you.”

Religious activities and expressions also can stir a reaction, it warned.

In one country, the United Arab Emirates, for example, “Individuals may be arrested, fined, and/or deported for … making rude gestures, swearing, touching another person without his/her permission, and making derogatory statements about the UAE, the royal families, the local governments or other people.”

In Qatar, it’s seven years in prison for “defaming, desecrating, or committing blasphemy against Islam, Christianity, or Judaism.”

And China allows security personnel to detain Americans for “sending private electronic messages critical of the PRC government.”

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This article was originally published by the WND News Center.

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