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Blog Posted in avatar   Katharina Jones's Blog

Should universities fear UN's landmark resolution on freedom of expression online?

By Katharina Jones
Posted Sep 10, 2012 in Lifestyle
In terms of human rights, freedom of expression tends to be the most problematic and complex in nature. By definition, it allows anybody to say anything they like, but in reality there must be certain restrictions in place.
Extremists of all kinds have frequently taken advantage of what should be a very simple right, inciting hatred and violence by verbal means without risking arrest. We can all agree that this is unacceptable, and therefore laws are in place to prevent such dangerous and provocative uses of free speech. Outside of these extreme instances though, and particularly online, the waters are a little more muddy.
Issues such as bullying, sexism, racism and homophobia frequently tarnish the integrity of the ever-growing social networking sites, forcing their way back into the public consciousness. Recently, many arrests have been made against people who have 'tweeted' offensive slurs, such as the unfortunate abuse levelled at Olympian Tom Daley during the London 2012 games.
Although this kind of arrest may seem just to many of us, it does beg the question; where do we draw the line? It would be ridiculous to suggest that comedians should be punished for telling shocking jokes, or that movie critics should avoid being particularly harsh bad actors. The line must be drawn at the point whereby prejudice rears its ugly head, but to many people even this is subjective.
Some may argue that the telling of a racist joke should be punished as a criminal offence, whereas others may simply roll their eyes. However, it is not only the boundary between distaste and criminality that is problematic where freedom of expression is concerned. The internet allows anyone to air their strongest opinions, which can often be damaging to hard-earned reputations.
Students have always been associated with protestation, so it should come as no surprise that their online activities regularly raise concerns with many universities and colleges. Every learning institution has a code of ethics and a disciplinary system that is laid out in black and white for students to respect. Usually, any student behaviour that strongly undermines the integrity and reputation of the university will warrant severe disciplinary action.
The problem though, is that the internet is still a new tool, which is constantly evolving. A university that was established 200 years ago may still stand by a code of conduct devised at the time. These rules may not apply online, at least not in the eyes of students, so the faculty must set out clear boundaries for this purpose. This hasn't always been the case, and it has been known for universities to take strong action against slanderous or outspoken students based on no specific written rules.
However, the power now shifts into the hands of the student population, as the UN Human Rights Council adopts a resolution on online freedom of expression. From now on, the rule is essentially that the freedom afforded to us offline must applied equally online. Therefore, universities can no more punish students for online activity than they can for partaking in more traditional forms of free speech, which could lead to a whole new wave of student protests regarding any number of issues.

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