Qatar and Academic Freedom at NYUAD

While academic freedom in NYUAD is untouched by the current political climate, freedom of speech is subject to local laws and restrictions.

Sep 03, 2017


On June 5, the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Egypt and a number of other countries diplomatically sanctioned Qatar, a move that led many students at NYU Abu Dhabi to be worried about how these developments would impact their lives in the UAE. Following the passage of the Qatar sympathy law on June 7, students struggled to understand how to properly balance academic freedom on campus with respect for the UAE’s mounting national security concerns.

The UAE Federal Public Prosecution announced that showing sympathy for Qatar is now considered a cybercrime under the already existing Federal Penal Code and the Federal Law on Combating Information Technology Crimes. According to this legislation, anyone found to be threatening the interests, stability or unity of the UAE could face a prison sentence from three to 15 years and a fine of at least 500,000 AED.

The UAE General Prosecutor, Hamad Saif Al-Shamsi warned that "strict and tough action will be taken against anyone who shows sympathy or any form of favoritism towards Qatar, or against anyone who objects to the position of the UAE, whether through social media, or any other forms of communication."

In an effort to obtain some clarity for students as to how their academic freedom of speech would be affected by these developments, initial student inquiry was led by Yumi Gambrill, class of 2018, and this summer’s informal Student Government liaison. After talking to Dean of Students Kyle Farley and Senior Advisor Chris O’Connell, Gambrill posted on NYUAD Forum, an NYUAD Facebook group, on July 18 summarizing their discussion.

Based on her conversation with Farley and O’Connell, she learned that the status of academic freedom on campus remains unchanged. Discussing the rationale behind Qatar’s diplomatic and economic embargo in an academic context is permitted. However, Gambrill cautioned in her post that “freedom of speech is separate from academic freedom.”

While academic freedom is untouched by the current political climate, freedom of speech is subject to local laws and restrictions. Thus, showing sympathy for Qatar in a personal context would be considered a form of expression punishable by the UAE law.

According to Associate Vice Provost for Undergraduate Academic Development Bryan Waterman, the settings in which it is appropriate to discuss Qatar are no different from those in which it is appropriate to discuss other topics restricted by the UAE government. He helped clarify the distinction between the forms of expression protected by academic freedom and those that are not.

“Academic freedom relates to the function of the university in its teaching and research capacities,” Waterman stated.

As such, the following situations are acceptable and appropriate settings for discussing restricted topics:

  1. Classroom discussions
  2. Coursework
  3. Course materials
  4. Research
  5. Student Interest Group activities
  6. Capstones

However, not necessarily all activities related to the listed settings are protected by academic freedom. Waterman added that “any publicly accessible expression,” whether online or on campus, could be subject to local laws. For example, while SIG activities, such as meetings or tournaments, are protected by academic freedom, if a SIG were to rally in favor of a restricted opinion on campus, the rally would not be protected by academic freedom.

Waterman cautioned that academic freedom “is not something that I would want to violate, say, by spouting off in class about something that has nothing to do with my class. It’s meant to protect people whose research and teaching needs the sanction of those protections. I don’t consider it a blanket guarantee to just say [that] I can just spout out whatever I want.”

Students should also not be concerned about their conversations with other students on sensitive issues. According to Waterman, students reporting on their conversations with each other “would violate the spirit of our community.” Nevertheless, while students are free to discuss restricted topics with each other, the university may intervene in the case of hate speech.

In addition, “the university’s public-facing activities… fall within the realm of public expression.” As such, the NYUAD Arts Center, NYUAD Art Gallery and NYUAD institutes are not protected by academic freedom, even though they are university-sponsored, since they are open and accessible to the public.

If students have any questions or concerns about what activities are protected by academic freedom, they should approach their academic advisor, the dean of the school, the Office of Public Affairs or Associate Vice Provost for Undergraduate Academic Development Bryan Waterman.

Paula Estrada is News Editor. Email her [email protected]

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