An Attack on Free Speech?

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By Duku Jallah

The University of Liberia has, for an indefinite period, suspended the rights to political participation on their campuses in response to riots orchestrated by rival members of the Student Unification Party (SUP).

There has since been an outpouring of condemnation on the University’s decision, with some even terming the position as “an overstated reaction,” and they do have a point. The problem with ending the practice of politics at a public university is that it resonates badly with history. The decision is misguided and its mechanics are fixed against the interests and stated values of our sovereign Constitution on matters regarding freedom of expression.

The University’s understanding on this matter appears as vastly inadequate as it undermines its commitment to institutional integrity. A press statement cannot effectively serve the function of ending student politics unless it is accompanied with actions which include changing the organic laws of the country, because we have a law which encourages freedom of expression and a President who has incessantly iterated his support for the constitution in the protection of free speech and the rights to political expression.

Simply put, people are right to term the University’s response to Friday’s riots as “an overstated reaction”. The University is a public space and under our laws, you cannot circumscribe people’s opinions on matters regarding public affairs. The University’s decision was made on flimsy impulses and such decisions are not usually credible.

After the release of the publication, I sought the opinion of students on the University’s stance and a number of their opinions translated into a massive animus. The students want an end to rioting on the campuses but not at the cost of proscribing the rights to free speech. In the same vein, the University wants to improve the quality of the teaching staff, but not at the cost of assuaging the salary disparity between the top administrators and teachers.

To end the practice of politics at a historically political University will come at a huge cost. Public perception will run amok and it might even fuel more protests. This decision has tilted a body of suspicion against the government as it is easy to believe that the University’s action is an attempt to silence people who pose an ethical challenge to the system.

Students are already planning to resist this decision. One of the political parties at the University, the Student Integration Movement, is planning a lawsuit, as people outside the boundaries of the University are bracing themselves for a war against what they call an attack on free speech. The University is losing the argument.

Honestly, the University does not need to embrace such extreme position when they can simply discourage students from rioting by investigating violent protests and punishing those responsible. They can begin by conducting an investigation into Friday’s protest and punishing the culprits of that violent disruption and all other riots in recent memory—this will be a more effective deterrent.

During my interview with students, the overwhelming proposal favored the University’s publishing the investigative report on the riots which disrupted the anniversary celebration of the Student Democratic Alliance, one of the three political parties on the campuses of the University. Last year, during the 26th Anniversary Celebration of the Student Democratic Alliance, members of the Student Unification Party staged a disruption in an attempt to prevent the speech of Finance Minister Mr. Samuel Tweah, who is also the soul of the CDC regime. SUP is professedly anti-government and justifies its attack by this label.

How else does the University hope to end rioting if they are incessantly lenient towards people who incite rioting? How can they recreate the spirit of civility if they cannot act against militarism?

The disruption on Friday was not played among the political parties on campus. It was between competing factions in SUP. The University should conduct an investigation and find a settlement. Let’s leave free speech out of this because an attack on this right will gain only enemies, enemies like myself.

About the Author: 
Duku Jallah is a student leader at the University of Liberia. He is also a national youth leader and an activist for democracy and youth development. He can be reached at 07769696981 or [email protected]

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