A group of academics yesterday rallied behind Tsuang Ben-jei (莊秉潔), a professor against whom Formosa Plastics Group (FPG) filed a lawsuit over his research, which the company said had injured its reputation.
Tsuang, a faculty member of National Chung Hsing University’s (NCHU) department of environmental engineering, is a target of FPG’s ire for remarks he made last year during a meeting of the Environmental Protection Administration’s (EPA) environmental impact assessment committee in which he reported that hazardous heavy metals and carcinogenic substances contained in the exhaust gas emitted by the company’s sixth naphtha cracker plant in Yunlin County’s Mailiao Township (麥寮) resulted in a higher cancer occurrence rate for nearby residents.
FPG filed a civil suit alleging the sullying of its reputation with a compensation claim of NT$40 million (US$1.3 million) as well as a criminal suit alleging aggravated defamation and demanded that Tsuang place a public notice of apology in newspapers.
At a press conference yesterday, Chou Kuei-tien (周桂田), a professor at National Taiwan University’s Graduate Institute of National Development and host of the conference, said that by Saturday night, 485 academics, including former Academia Sinica president Lee Yuan-tseh (李遠哲), had signed a petition in support of Tsuang.
The petition states their support for Tsuang and his freedom to speak, reprimands FPG for “arbitrarily oppressing academic freedom” and urges the company to withdraw the lawsuit.
The academics said fear from FPG’s actions would have a chilling effect, resulting in a regression of academic freedoms within a democratic society.
Tsuang had the academic conscience to stand out and expose the health effects caused by the sixth naphtha cracker’s exhaust and so the issue should be discussed further and debated, Chou Chang-hung (周昌弘) of Academia Sinica said.
“From the perspective of the nobility of academic freedom, we will not allow our space for academic debate to become the defendant. I feel sad and mortified [about the case],” Chou said. “If academics are afraid to stand out to tell the truth to the public, then we should feel a sense of guilt for not paying our social responsibilities.”
Academic freedom is recognized as a basic human right worldwide and the right to bring forth unwelcome viewpoints should be protected from being threatened or interfered with, said NCHU secretary-general Chen Chi-chung (陳吉仲), who participated in the press conference on behalf of the university.
Hsu Wei-chun (徐偉群), an assistant professor at Chung Yuan Christian University and convener of the Association of Taiwan Democracy, urged prosecutors not to initiate legal proceedings against Tsuang and for the judiciary to adhere to freedom of speech as protected by the Constitution.
The first trial session of the case is scheduled for Thursday.
Meanwhile, FPG lawyer Wu Yu-hsueh (吳雨學) said the corporation respected academic freedom, but Tsuang’s research cited false data, which had damaged its reputation and caused panic among residents in the area.
Wu said the data was simulated and did not represent the actual emissions volume of the plant, which placed Tsuang’s actions outside the scope of protection of the freedom of speech.
FPG had asked Tsuang to provide the sources of his data and asked for greater clarification of the report, but Tsuang had not responded, Wu said.