University of NSW vice-chancellor apologises for removal of tweet criticising China’s human rights abuses | Australian universities

The vice-chancellor of the University of New South Wales has apologised for his university deleting a tweet that quoted a director of Human Rights Watch that was critical of China’s human rights abuses.

Prof Ian Jacobs wrote in an email to staff that the university had an “unequivocal commitment to freedom of expression and academic freedom” and the tweet “should not have been removed”.

Last Friday, the university published an online news story quoting Elaine Pearson, the Australian director of Human Rights Watch, who is also an adjunct academic at the university.

In the article, which was not written by Pearson, she said the international community should “put pressure on China to wind back infringements on human rights” and the United Nations should establish a special envoy to monitor the decline of human rights in Hong Kong.

A tweet promoting the article was deleted after protests from Chinese students, Jacobs said in his email. The article itself was briefly removed from the UNSW website but has since been reinstated.

The English-language Chinese state-owned newspaper the Global Times wrote that the university was “under attack from its Chinese student cohort” as a result of the tweet.

In an email on Wednesday, Jacobs described its deletion as “a mistake” but said it had been removed because the social media post “appeared to represent a UNSW view, rather than the view of an individual”.

“UNSW will avoid this situation in future by making it clear that such views are not those of the university – and as such will alter its social media accounts to state that the posting of material does not amount to an endorsement.”

The original tweet read: “Now is a pivotal moment to bring attention to the rapidly deteriorating situation in Hong Kong. @UNSWLaw’s Elaine Pearson says ‘now is the time’ for the international community to put pressure on China to wind back infringements on human rights.”

Pearson told Guardian Australia earlier she was “worried that some students or Chinese Communist party supporters can bully the university into removing this sort of material”.

“Obviously standing up for human rights is not something that is controversial in Australia,” she said

In his email, Jacobs said that the university “has a strong track record in protecting freedom of expression but we do make mistakes”.

“The only constraint we place on freedom of speech is the law … Our university is rightfully a place where many different views and opinions are expressed and vigorously debated,” he said.

He continued: “This tweet was removed after protests were received. The tweet should not have been removed. I apologise for this mistake … There is no excuse for our failure in this instance but an explanation is warranted.

“In order to protect our role as a place where all views can be expressed, UNSW as an institution does not take a position on political issues. On this occasion the tweet was removed as it appeared to represent a UNSW view, rather than the view of an individual.

“This is an example of the challenges universities face in navigating issues of freedom of speech in a complex world. At UNSW, we will continue to acknowledge and learn from our mistakes … members of our community can be assured that their right to freedom of expression is no different at UNSW to anywhere else in Australia.”

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