Free Universe

Muhammad Tahir

Muhammad Tahir

“The devil came here yesterday, and it smells of sulphur still today, this table that I am now standing in front of.” Thus spoke the Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez at the September 2006 UN General Assembly. He went on to lampoon George W Bush in front of the representatives of over 190 countries: “Yesterday ladies and gentlemen from this rostrum, the President of the United States, the gentleman to whom I refer as the devil, came here, talking as if he owned the world.”

Hugo Chavez was able to express his biting criticism of Bush so freely and with such blithe indifference to conventions and traditions of diplomacy because he knew that the space within which he was operating, though located on the soil of the United States, didn’t belong to the US government but the United Nations — by virtue of a treaty, which gives it an extra-territorial status.

Does a student enjoy, or ought to enjoy, the similar kind of immunity within the space the world knows as University? To form any opinion on this question will require us to first grasp the idea of university, the essence of this term. Etymologically, the word “University” derives from the Latin root Universitas (also Universitatem or Universus: the whole, aggregate or entire). In its original fuller form it read as “universitas magistrorum et scholarium” (community of teachers and scholars).

But this was a community, body, guild, or association with “collective legal rights” duly formalised in charters. For example, Privilegium Scholasticum (1155), was the official document authenticated by the Holy Roman Emperor Fredrick Barbarossa, granting certain special privileges (including “immunity from the right of reprisal”) to the students of the University of Bologna (founded 1088). This foundational document became the charter of academic freedom which was subsequently adopted and improvised, with the passage into modernity, by other societies.

Such privileges or immunities allowed scholars to pursue their ideas within their “universe” unhindered and contribute in the glorious progression of the world.

Like the UN headquarters spread on 8 acres of land at the Turtle Bay, New York, a university, anywhere in the world, should be a privileged space which affords its members immunities from prosecution by the law of the country on which it is located. Though a state funds it, a university should not be claimed by it as its sole property; rather it should, by virtue of its name, belong to the universe — the whole world from which it directly or indirectly benefits in ideational and material senses and to which it contributes (by producing and critiquing the knowledge), must be its body habitus, its sphere of operation, its existential realm, not the country of its origin. This, of course, does not mean university students should not be prosecuted should they commit violence and crimes.

Yes they should, if such a case is established by due course of law, but they do not forfeit their scholarly privileges and certainly they continue to have freedom, as a university student, to question each and everything. Their freedom should be accorded to them by a universal charter like Privilegium Scholasticum by virtue of whose possession a student can assume a privileged identity not that of a citizen of a state, but as a scholar of a university, with certain immunities; and this latter identity should be protected by the states under the obligation of the universal laws.

(Tahir is a PhD candidate in the School of Law and Government, Dublin City University, Ireland.)

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