(New York) – Malaysian universities should stop using disciplinary rules to silence student activists and restrict debate on matters of public interest, Human Rights Watch said today. In the most recent example, the University of Malaya (UM) penalized six students on February 16, 2016, for holding a press conference without university permission.

A university student leader calls for the repeal of the sedition act outside the Malaysian Ministry of Home Affairs building in Putrajaya on September 5, 2014.

At the press conference, held in December 2015, the students publicized what they believed to be plans by the university to impose a new monthly limit on students’ internet usage. The university denied the claim and started disciplinary proceedings. The students were fortunate to escape with a stern warning – under university rules, they could have been suspended or even expelled.

“Universities should be places of open discussion and debate,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director. “Students should not be penalized for peaceful speech under the guise of enforcing school discipline.”

UM has repeatedly sanctioned students for speaking out on matters of public interest, banned speakers from campus, and blocked student assemblies, citing the broadly worded University and University Colleges Act (UUCA) and university disciplinary rules enacted pursuant to that law. The UUCA prohibits students from being involved in political party activities on campus, or from joining or saying anything that “may reasonably be construed” as expressing support for “any society, organization, body or group of persons which the Board determines to be unsuitable to the interests and well-being of the students or the University.”

Using the broad discretion granted by the UUCA, the university has enacted disciplinary rules forbidding students from holding any assembly or circulating any document without prior approval, and from conducting themselves in any manner which the university deems “detrimental or prejudicial to the interests, well-being or good name of the University … or to public order, safety or security, morality, decency or discipline.” Violations can lead to penalties ranging from a warning to expulsion.

Pursuant to these rules, in May 2014 UM served four representatives of the student union with “show cause” letters threatening disciplinary action after the students displayed placards criticizing the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and United States’ actions in the Middle East during an on-campus town hall session attended by US President Barack Obama. While US Ambassador Joseph Yun spoke out in support of the students’ right to peacefully protest, the university alleged that their actions had damaged its “reputation and interests.” Fahmi Zainol, then secretary-general of the union, commented that officials from the US embassy had treated the students far better than their own university had.

Zainol’s continued efforts to encourage public debate resulted in his suspension by the university for two semesters in November 2014. The suspension was punishment for his role in arranging a speech by opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, a UM alumnus, the previous month.

Students should not be penalized for peaceful speech under the guise of enforcing school discipline.

Phil Robertson

Deputy Asia Director

Anwar Ibrahim – now serving a five-year sentence on politically motivated charges – is only one of a number of speakers barred from the UM campus by university authorities. Former bar council president Ambiga Sreenevasan was barred from speaking at the UM law faculty’s Law Career Convention on Public Interest Litigation in March 2014, and opposition MP Tony Pua has been barred from speaking at UM on three different occasions. Since the university rules prohibit students from making “any objection” to the exclusion or expulsion of any person from the campus, even complaining about the university’s actions could be penalized as a violation of the disciplinary rules.

University of Malaya is not alone in taking such actions. In 2014, shortly after he was charged with sedition for publicly stating his legal opinion that actions which took place during the 2009 Perak constitutional crisis were improper, UM law professor Azmi Sharom was invited to lecture about the sedition act at the National University of Malaysia (UKM). When he arrived on October 2, he was told by university security that he would not be allowed to speak.

“Malaysian universities should celebrate civic engagement by their students – not repress it,” said Robertson. “The restrictions in the UUCA and the university disciplinary rules are contrary to the spirit of academic freedom, violate principles of free speech and assembly, and should be repealed.”