Chula values royalist tradition over freedom of expression

Facing criticism over the dismissal of a leading student activist, Chulalongkorn University (CU) has published a statement arguing that the university “has the right to reserve a certain space or activity as an exception from the free speech rule.”
 
On 6 September 2017, CU published a statement in response to the criticism it has faced since the dismissal of its Student Council President Netiwit Chotiphatphaisal. The university affirmed its commitment to freedom of expression but argued that there must be some exceptions since the university also has a duty to preserve its royalist roots which might be uncommon for those who uphold western liberal values.
 
“Our university has a long history and a royal lineage that are imbued in our tradition and beliefs that may be uncommon to western liberal values. Much that [sic] we support liberalism and freedom of expression, we also have our cultural roots and harmony to balance,” reads the statement.
 
On 31 August, the university dismissed Netiwit and seven other students from the Student Council after they staged a symbolic protest during a university initiation ceremony on 3 August. 
 
As President of the Student Council, Netiwit had proposed to the university that this year’s ceremony have a space for students who want to pay respect by bowing rather than prostrating themselves. He argued that his request follows the wishes of King Rama V who abolished prostration. 
 
For the benefit of foreigners, the CU statement argues that there is a difference between ‘prostration’, which was banned, and ‘paying obeisance’, which was what happened at the ritual, and provides a link to another page that shows this difference, including examples of prostration before the current and last kings.
 
Netiwit claimed that the university initially agreed to amend the ceremony, but on the day only prostration was allowed. Subsequently he and his friends decided to walk out towards the end of the ceremony.
 
CU, however, argued that it has never forced any student to attend the initiation ceremony and also provided a venue for students who wished to pay respect to the monuments of King Rama V and Rama VI differently as Netiwit had requested. Therefore the dismissal of Netiwit and other activists for disrupting the ceremony was justified. 
 
“While the reprimanded group of students are not wrong in advocating on grounds of freedom of expression, we also insist that every community and society has the right to reserve a certain space or activity as an exception from the free speech rule. This space could be a space of holiness, sensitivity, or pain,” reads the statement. 
 
The statement also confirms that the investigation of the lecturer who assaulted one of the protesting students is ongoing, adding that he has already resigned from his position as assistant to the president (student affairs).
 
The dismissal of Netiwit has caught public attention, from both inside and outside the country, even before the order of dismissal was released. Soon after the university announced it was instigating a disciplinary investigation, leading scholar Noam Chomsky wrote an email to Netiwit to express his support. 
 
However, there is some sympathy for CU. After the removal of Netiwit, three CU alumni associations,  Engineering, Communication Arts and Education, published statements expressing their support for the university.
 
“CU Engineering Alumni would like to show spirit and give support to the action of the CU executive branch in this matter [to remove Netiwit] in order to protect the reputation, traditions and disciplinary rules of the university to be a good model for society in the future” reads one statement. 
 
But CU’s disciplinary action against Netiwit is far from over. He still faces an additional charge of using university premises without permission when he hosted a public hearing at the Student Council office to receive complaints and requests about a CU commercial development project. If his student behaviour points are reduced by another 15 or more, he will be suspended for one semester.
 
 
 
CU lecturer escorts one of the protesting students out off the ceremony (Photo from Netiwit’s Facebook)