Scholars At Risk protects academics, artists, writers, and other intellectuals threatened in their home countries, writes Hiram Moylan

Freedom of speech has been a controversial topic in recent times. As a basic human right, it offers a voice to minorities and critics of society. Conversely, it has granted a platform to those who openly speak of hatred and bigotry.

Despite the progression of society in its ability to accept more varied worldviews in the last decade, there are still a number of violations to freedom of speech internationally. One of these is academic freedom; that scholars may teach or communicate ideas or facts without being targeted for censorship, persecution, or imprisonment.

Scholars At Risk (SAR) has spent nearly two decades trying to protect this freedom. SAR is an organisation dedicated to the protection and support of the principles of academic freedom, along with the human rights of scholars internationally. On behalf of academics, artists, writers, and other intellectuals who are threatened in their home countries, Scholars At Risk arranges their sanctuary at other universities in various countries. The reasoning behind its foundation comes from the occasions when scholars attempt to communicate certain ideas that could impact negatively on authorities or political entities, they can face serious consequences, which include unlawful persecution or even death.

Since its formation in 1999 at the Human Rights Program in the University of Chicago, SAR has assisted in the relocation and protection of over 700 academics. Along with transferring them from unsafe and potentially life-threatening situations, SAR also aids these individuals financially and socially, connecting them with other faculty members in their field.

For example, the research of an unnamed public health professor from North Africa into infant mortality rates lead to the discovery that his government were declaring a much lower figure in official reports than reality. When the professor went public with these findings, he lost his job and was imprisoned by the state. This was one of many cases that led to the foundation of SAR.

Over the past 17 years, SAR has been involved in a number of instances where a scholar’s human rights have been infringed. More often than not, those they work with are facing prison sentences or public disgrace. With this, they have also developed a project known as the Academic Freedom MONITOR run by volunteers worldwide. Researchers identify and document attacks on third level academics in order to develop a better understanding of the nature and reasons for these incidents.

In response to the various attacks, SAR coordinates Action Plans that call upon governments and officials to protect the human rights of members of academic communities. The volatile nature of certain political regimes in our world has left many figures in education fearful to disclose their opinions or research, with SAR’s aim being to protect this supposedly inalienable right. Being students in a western society often leaves us ignorant of the struggles of our peers globally.

In “the era of post-truth”, we need to set and continue the standard of respecting academic freedom. Many of the freedoms we take for granted are not respected across oceans and borders, but this can change. Scholars At Risk has protected academics with the same credentials and views as our own lecturers here in Ireland. In defending the academic freedoms of older generations, we ensure our own freedoms for the future, something that because of the current political climate, we might have to live without.

Scholars At Risk’s network stretches to 400 institutions in 39 countries, and consistently look for volunteer help. See scholarsatrisk.org for details.

Pictured is Jatupat “Pai” Boonpattararaksa, a law student and activist imprisoned in Thailand for nonviolent expressive activity

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