The announcement by Soochow University on Tuesday that it is considering limiting the number of appearances made by its professors on TV political talk shows to four a month raises several interesting issues concerning freedom of speech and an employer’s right to limit an employee’s extracurricular activities.
The idea may be a controversial one, but switching on the TV night after night and seeing the same old faces waxing lyrical about the day’s events does get tedious after a while, no matter whether you agree with their opinions or not. It would at least give viewers a chance to hear some different opinions instead of the same hackneyed views from the same dozen or so talking heads.
If political parties were to make a similar proposal one would assume there would be widespread support as it would rid the screens of some of the nation’s more polarizing characters.
But it would be much more acceptable and a better idea all round if TV stations were to try to improve their programming by widening the pool of pundits to ensure that individuals only appear once every two weeks or so. But this would require a move away from the lazy, cut-price news coverage that is synonymous with cable TV.
Some of the reasons given by the university for the measure seem valid in that professors who appear almost nightly on such talk shows obviously have less time to devote to their students. The universities are their primary employers after all, and concern that such extracurricular activity — if it is affecting the professors’ ability to maintain their quality of teaching — is entirely justified. The only question remaining is why have these concerns not been raised until now?
Even if the proposal was first submitted last year, as the university claims, the timing of the announcement seems suspect. It comes just as Soochow University president Liu Chao-shiuan (劉兆玄) is set to assume the role of premier in the government of president-elect Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九).
Pan-green camp claims that the move is aimed at silencing critics of the new government have some credibility, especially when one considers reports that pan-blue supporters who contribute to Soochow have threatened to halt donations if its faculty continue to appear on air.
While freedom of speech is an important consideration, especially given Taiwan’s history of repression, Government Information Office Minister Shieh Jhy-wey (謝志偉) hit the nail on the head when he said the professors should be allowed to say what they like away from the campus as long as they don’t spend time propagating their views in class.
Around the world universities have historically been breeding grounds for dissent, and this should not change at one of the nation’s most prestigious schools because of complaints from a few wealthy bigots.
To restrict the outside activities of Soochow’s staff in response to complaints from monied benefactors could put healthy political discourse in the nation on a slippery slope.
How ironic it would be if it were to happen in the same week that we bid farewell to one of our most prominent political dissidents, Bo Yang (柏楊), and that Freedom House once again ranked the nation’s media as Asia’s and one of the world’s freest.