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A new report analyzing college policies on speech and political participation by students studying abroad found that colleges often have difficulty balancing students’ rights and student safety.

The report by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education speaks to the tensions colleges must navigate when they send students overseas, including to countries where speech rights are far more limited than in the United States. FIRE, which works against restrictive speech codes, acknowledges that universities “are in a delicate position” when trying to balance free speech against safety, but it warns against the adoption of vague prohibitions on student speech or political expression.

“University policies on speech in study abroad programs should make clear that students are bound by their destination country’s legal systems, that they may be required to leave the program and country if legal concerns or serious threats of violence are posed in response to their expression, and that administrators may be unable to provide aid in certain situations,” the report argues. “The policies should make clear what expression has the potential to violate foreign laws or customs or partner institution policies and what speech-related consequences students can expect from state officials, immigration authorities, and partner university administrators. But universities should not develop vague policies that create additional confusion among students and the potential for self-censorship and administrative abuse.”

The report, which is titled “Studying Abroad, Speaking Out: How U.S. Universities Approach Expression in Study Abroad Programs,” contends that local context matters.

“Students traveling to France, for instance, should not be given the same warnings about expressive activity as students traveling to China,” it states.

“The main takeaways should be that universities should be doing a little more of the heavy lifting to make sure their students understand what speech issues abroad mean for them specifically,” said Sarah McLaughlin, director of targeted advocacy for FIRE and author of the report. “The other side of that is universities need to be very careful to understand the role they play, where they need to be warning students and they need to be teaching them, but they don’t necessarily need to be adopting oppressive speech codes of their own just because they’re sending students to countries with those codes.”

FIRE’s report is based on an analysis of 100 universities’ written policies on student conduct during study abroad. The survey found that 39 of those universities have publicly available warnings against engaging in speech overseas, including warnings against attending protests or demonstrations or posting political views on social media.

According to the report, these warnings generally advise students of the risks of engaging in certain expressive activities while abroad “but do not have clear university disciplinary action associated with them.”

FIRE’s survey found that 18 universities, including some public universities, “went further and crafted policies that confusingly incorporate foreign laws into university conduct policies or govern what students can say abroad, raising questions about what an American university’s role is in handling student expression overseas.”

The report notes, for example, that Georgetown University’s conditions for participation in study abroad programs state that attendance at rallies or “participation in political activities” put students at risk of potential dismissal from the program.

“‘Political activities’ is an incredibly broad phrase,” the report argues. “Would wearing a pro-LGBT pride pin count as a political activity? Would writing an op-ed discussing foreign policy count? What about a student’s tweet criticizing their host country’s president? It’s not clear from Georgetown’s policy, meaning that students taking part in the university’s study abroad program may reasonably conclude that they should self-censor potentially political speech rather than risk dismissal from their program.”

McLaughlin said she was particularly troubled by the broad language included in the University of California Education Abroad Program’s Student Conduct and Discipline Policy, which outlines actions that “in the judgment of UCEAP officials, jeopardize a student’s welfare [or] that of fellow students.” Such listed actions include: “violation of the laws of the country or host institution,” “open abuse of the customs and mores of the community,” and “inappropriate, disrespectful, rude, or aggressive communication or actions toward others, and uncivil behavior or communication.”

Media relations representatives for Georgetown and the University of California president’s office did not respond to several requests for comment.

Melissa Torres, president and CEO of the Forum on Education Abroad, an association for study abroad professionals, observed that FIRE’s report “only analyzed policies and did not include discussion with the people in charge of creating or implementing those policies.”

“A single study of this kind can’t capture the full picture of how students on education abroad programs are prepared by their campus study abroad office and on-site resident directors to exercise their rights safely while abroad,” Torres said via email. “In general, students have many more points of contact with staff and faculty involved in the preparation and delivery of EA [education abroad] programs in the U.S. and on-site in which rules like the ones FIRE have identified in the policies they’ve studied can be contextualized, explained, and explored in more depth, particularly when students are headed to places that are known to be especially stringent or related to particular issues (e.g. religious freedoms, anti-LBGTQ laws, etc.).”

“International law and risk management are complex and best practice in our field dictates that institutions should be referring to multiple sources to inform their risk management decisions,” Torres said. “Unfortunately, this sometimes means that being transparent with students and their families can’t be accomplished in a single sentence or with a reference to a single source of external information. There should be a certain level of maturity and responsibility expected of students who participate in all types of programs sponsored by their college or university, including study abroad.”

Andrea Bordeau, president of Pulse: International Health and Safety Professionals in Higher Education and director of global safety and security at Vanderbilt University, said, “There’s a delicate balance as a student traveler -- when you are going to another country, you are essentially agreeing to abide by local laws and customs. For universities, for a long time the mission has been to say to students, ‘Do you know what that means; are you comfortable with that?’ … Our duty of care is such that we will guide students on how any decision they make may affect their risk profile.”

Bordeau said that one reason colleges might have more restrictive policies is because some are more limited than others in the resources they have to advise students on specific country circumstances or to assist them in case of an emergency.

“That’s something for universities to balance in a way with the amount of resources they have and what they can provide,” she said. “I think some will only ever be able to point students to do their own research and prepare themselves, and others will have much more of an ability to tailor their guidance individually and help best prepare.”

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