We interviewed the Çukurova University students about freedom of expression in universities.
Freedom of expression is the right of people to express their thoughts as they wish. As in the scope of fundamental rights and freedoms, it is one of the indispensable elements of a democratic society. Yet, although it guarantees freedom of expression in its laws, Turkey was ranked 154th out of 180 countries in the 2022 Press Freedom Index. Moreover, in 2015, it became the country with the highest number of freedom of expression violations in the European Court of Human Rights.
Considering the freedom of expression condition in Turkey, what is the situation in universities? Is there freedom of expression in universities? Do students have problems using these rights?
We spoke with Mert, a student at Çukurova University Faculty of Political Sciences, Özge from the Faculty of Law, and Barış from the Faculty of Dentistry.
“Freedom of expression at the university is also not homogeneous”
What do you think about freedom of expression? Do you believe there is freedom of expression at university?
Mert: I consider freedom of expression a political concept, a manifestation of the power struggle between the dynamics of society. Just as the world did not revolve around the sun in 17th-century Europe(!), freedom of expression cannot revolve around the truth of the current government. Freedom of expression at the university is also not homogeneous. While students have freedom of expression among themselves, they do not have these rights within the academy, which’s concept is emptied by pressures and dismissals and appointed trustees.
Özge: Individuals have the right to express and disseminate their thoughts freely. Everyone should be free to express their opinions in a way that does not constitute an element of a crime. This right cannot be limited, but since university administrations are not independent and autonomous, they restrict students’ freedom of expression with the regulation they have brought.
Barış: It would probably be wrong to claim that one can freely express or spread his opinion. For example, even a young person asked, ‘Will they come and pick me up before I go home?’ after he talked to a microphone in a street interview. Because of the fear of a possible launch of an investigation, he couldn’t express his own thoughts with tolerance.
“Students don’t think that they are entitled to have a freedom of expression”
Can students freely express their thoughts? Can you give an example?
Mert: The oppression of the spaces where students can express themselves is a significant obstacle in front of this situation. There are anti-democratic practices like the student representatives being elected without the students’ knowledge or the student council president being determined without an election, – which hollows out this concept. In a situation where their demands cannot be conveyed, how can students express their thoughts freely?
Özge: Students struggle to express their thoughts freely. But, even if they do, they face sanctions. For example, when we complained about the examination system to the professors at Çukurova law faculty last year, the examinations became more difficult. We wouldn’t have to face this result if there were freedom of expression.
Barış: University students fear expressing themselves and don’t think they are entitled to freedom of expression. So, for example, wherever we go to university, we see this announcement: “You have to demonstrate in determined areas; there can be no demonstration other than that. You must also have obtained permission from us for the demonstration.” Handing out flyers, leaflets, and hanging posters are all prohibited.
Because of these restrictions, students can’t express their thoughts freely. As a result, young people are now hesitant to submit a petition for a problem in their university, saying, “Let’s discuss it alone; otherwise, professors or the cleaning staff may hear somehow.” Therefore, I believe young people can express their thoughts freely neither in the university nor in the country.
“Student clubs can’t even organize entertainment events”
Do you think the university has pressure on student societies or clubs? Can societies and clubs comfortably run their activities?
Mert: As we start the new semester, the “Security and Housing Measures in Universities” circular was published on the website of the Ministry of Interior. They will collect intelligence in student clubs and societies, and the pressure against these organizations will increase under many pretexts. It is also clear that the university does not meet even the most minor requests of clubs and societies, and political clubs are closed from time to time.
Özge: The university administration wants to control student clubs and communities by putting pressure. Official clubs of the university cannot even organize entertaining activities. Students do not have the right to express opinions on a subject where they discuss their problems. Unfortunately, these student clubs, which the administration increasingly hollows out, do not make much sense for students.
Last year, as the women’s society, we wanted to prepare and distribute a welcome to the university leaflet for female students. But while we were distributing this leaflet on campus, the school security took our leaflets from us and asked for our IDs. He stated that this was forbidden and that if we did it again, he would give us to the police. In other words, it is not permitted to take a stand against harassment, rape, and violence and to bring women together around this idea as women in the university. As women, we want to express and discuss our thoughts on campus freely. We don’t want to have to agree with the lecturers when speaking in lectures. We want impartial, scientific education.
Barış: Starting a club requires a lot of official paperwork and process. Student societies should be where students can come together comfortably, do activities, and contribute to the university’s governance. But on the contrary, they intimidate and distance students and become a place where students pop up occasionally.
It is because of the abovementioned official documents and transactions, but also because the clubs the university administration is keen to encourage and budget are mostly career clubs. Apart from these, student societies and clubs are incapable of doing a job. Because they don’t have the budget; furthermore when they want to do the slightest activity, they can only do it by consulting their advisor or guidance counselor. As such, young people’s problems, demands and activities are directly under the influence of the university administration. For example, students could not directly elect the President of the Student Representatives Board; the President was appointed. Rectors are appointed as trustees to universities. Even if there is freedom of expression in a place where one cannot choose one’s representative or government, how meaningful can it be? Freedom of expression is an important concept, but where and how one can express one’s expression is also very important. In other words, if freedom of expression is entirely between two people, away from the university, it will be incomplete. What is important is for students to be able to discuss and talk about their problems, to see themselves belong to the university, as the transforming power of the university, and to take the university further together. In that respect, freedom of expression cannot be enough on its own.