Moscow university tightens political speech rules after protests

Academics and students at the Higher School of Economics forbidden from disclosing affiliation when engaging in politics 

February 4, 2020
Source: Getty

One of Russia’s leading universities has banned its academics and students from identifying their institutional position when making public political statements, in a move seen as a further erosion of academic freedom in the country.

Critics claimed that Moscow’s Higher School of Economics (HSE), known for its relatively liberal leanings, has clamped down on dissent in response to its students’ involvement in anti-government protests last summer.

Despite an international petition against the changes, on 25 January the HSE’s academic council approved new rules which state that “if someone is engaged in political activities, they must do so in the capacity as a private person and not a university employee or student”, according to a university summary of the regulations.

“These rules are formulated in such a way to censor statements by students and academics,” said Armen Aramyan, a PhD student and an editor at student publication Doxa.

The new rules mean that if academics or students want to engage in politics – go on demonstrations, publicly support a politician or help with political events – they are now forbidden from identifying themselves as being affiliated to the university.

“In practice, this rule means that political activism is permissible only outside the university,” said Andrey Lavrov, the HSE’s director for public relations.

Instead, academics will be allowed to reveal their job titles only when they stick to “analysis” – in newspaper columns, for example – of their own field of expertise, he explained.

The HSE has defended the changes, arguing that they have some parallels with rules at US universities.

Tufts University, for example, has a policy where faculty listed as supporters of a politician or policy “should be without mention of institutional affiliation, or with a disclaimer indicating that their actions and statements are their own and not those of the university”.

Yaroslav Kuzminov, the HSE’s rector, has said that academics and students “should behave in a way that is not harmful to the university”.

“That’s why our professional opinions should sound more like those of professors speaking rather than like kitchen arguments, which is not uncommon on the internet,” he argued, defending the changes.

But critics saw the restrictions as an “act of reprisal” for HSE students’ involvement in protests last summer against the exclusion of opposition candidates from Moscow city elections, at which police arrested more than 1,000 demonstrators.

One HSE student with a huge social media following, Yegor Zhukov, was arrested and faced criminal charges, but avoided jail after a court ruling in December.

His arrest had sparked widespread dissent among HSE staff and students, said Mr Aramyan, and the university likely wanted to send a signal that it was “out of politics” to avoid a crackdown by the authorities.

Asked why rule changes were being made now, Mr Lavrov said: “We are continually refining our rules; we do this every year, and sometimes more often.”

The new regulations also change the status of student media organisations, which Mr Aramyan said will deprive them of funding, and access to university equipment and facilities.

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