George Washington University Reverses Decision to Censor Posters Criticizing Beijing Olympics

By Bill Pan
Bill Pan
Bill Pan
Reporter
Bill Pan is a reporter for The Epoch Times.
February 8, 2022 Updated: February 8, 2022

George Washington University (GW), amid widespread criticism, has reversed its decision to censor criticism of Beijing, admitting it was a mistake to remove political posters on campus at the behest of a Chinese student group controlled by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

The posters in question are designed in a way that at the first glance they look like real advertisements for the Olympic Winter Games in Beijing that are currently underway, but in fact contain satirical messages against ongoing human right abuses in China. One of the posters depicts a Chinese biathlete pointing her rifle execution style at a blindfolded Uyghur man. In another poster, a Chinese figure skater skates over a bleeding flag of Hong Kong, representing the dramatic decline of the city’s freedoms under ever-tightening CCP control.

The appearance of these posters on campus provoked a strong reaction from the Chinese Students and Scholars Association (CSSA), which is known for doubling as an arm of the Chinese embassy to advance Beijing’s oversea interests. The GW chapter of CSSA decried what it called racism, calling on the university administrators for a public apology, and demanding that those responsible for posting the images get “punished severely.”

“During the opening of the Winter Olympics, these posters express not only trampling on the Olympic spirit, but also a naked attack on the Chinese Nation,” the group wrote in an email, which was posted to Twitter by Badiucao, the Australia-based artist who created the posters and made them available for free download online.

The CSSA complaint initially received supportive response from GW officials, including its president, Mark Wrighton.

“Please know that I am personally offended by the posters,” Wrighton wrote in an email to a pro-CCP student, shared by Badiucao on Twitter. “I treasure the opportunity to work with talented people from all over the world, including China. Your reaching out to me directly is much appreciated, and we are working to have all of these offensive posters removed as soon as possible.”

In a statement released on Monday, however, Wrighton revised his stance, admitting that the university administrators accepted the CSSA demands before investigating what the posters were actually about.

“At that time, and without more context on the origin or intent of the posters, I responded hastily to the student, writing that I, too, was concerned. University staff also responded to ensure the posters were removed. These responses were mistakes,” Wrighton wrote, adding that he now realizes that these posters are a “critique of China’s policies” and no longer considers them “racist.”

“I want to be very clear: I support freedom of speech—even when it offends people—and creative art is a valued way to communicate on important societal issues,” Wrighton wrote. He promised that GW will “not take any action against the students who displayed the posters.”

Wrighton’s change of position on the issue came after intense criticism on social media from students, alumni, and senators.

“Many American universities are enthusiastic agents for China’s censorship efforts in America,” Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fl.) wrote on Twitter.

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), a non-profit group focusing on First Amendment rights on college campuses, said it is “pleased” to see Wrighton’s decision, but still finds his initial response worrisome.

“It remains troubling that his first instinct was to censor the posters—which Wrighton admits have already been taken down by university staff—rather than abide by his university’s free speech commitments,” said Sarah McLaughlin, director of FIRE’s Targeted Advocacy program. “Wrighton’s belated positive opinion of the posters’ content should not determine whether students can see it. After all, this is not the first time GW has announced an investigation into anonymously posted flyers.”

Bill Pan
Reporter
Bill Pan is a reporter for The Epoch Times.