A lawsuit has been filed in response to the decision of a Chulalongkorn University (CU) executive to not reimburse the cost of producing a student magazine commemorating the life and work of Jit Phumisak, a renowned left-wing intellectual and former CU alumni.
A column in the magazine discusses the feudal legacy of Chulalongkorn University. The writer, proofreader, and art director have used pseudonyms reminiscent of the pen names employed by communist writers in the past.
On 8 June 2022, the Administrative Court accepted a suit filed by members of the Student Government of Chulalongkorn University’s (SGCU) Editorial Division against Asst Prof Chaiyaporn Puprasert, vice president for student affairs.
The two plaintiffs, who declined to be named out of fear of reprisal, state that Chaiyaporn, the person responsible for overseeing the student activity budget, wrongfully refused to reimburse money to cover the cost of publishing the 99th issue of SGCU’s annual magazine Mahawittayalai, violating their constitutional rights to freedom of the press and freedom of expression.
In what they believe is a landmark case regarding freedom of the press at CU, the plaintiffs have asked the Court to order reimbursement.
Censorship or Mismanagement?
The magazine issue in question commemorates the life of Jit Phumisak (25 September 1930 – 5 May 1966), a CU alumni enrolled in the Faculty of Arts in the 1960s. Like many other critical thinkers of the period, Jit was blacklisted by state authorities and ultimately sentenced to six years in prison. He later joined the Communist Party of Thailand and was murdered while in the custody of paramilitary forces.
Articles in the issue discuss Jit’s writings and works. Some explore traditional ruling class practices such as slaving and polygyny as depicted in Jit’s famous work The Real Face of Thai Feudalism. Others question sex economies and analyse CU of its economic exploitation.
On 9 November 2021, the SGCU Editorial Division received word that Chaiyaporn rejected an advanced reimbursement request of 76,221.60 baht. As a result, the plaintiffs were left to pay the production costs themselves and obliged to sell copies of a magazine that has heretofore been freely distributed.
In a bid to promote its distribution, the editorial team also decided to allow free access to the magazine via its website.
One column addresses the topic of sexual economics.
As with other CU student activity projects, the magazine project has to be approved in advance by the student committee and Student Affairs Department. Once approved, project costs were supposed to be covered by a budget provided by the university.
Testimony to the Court from CU Vice President Asst Prof Pomthong Malakul Na Ayudhya states that the reimbursement request was rejected because the SGCU editorial team failed to complete their request on time. As a result, CU regulations prohibited reimbursement.
The testimony also noted that student project proposals must be officially accepted by the Student Affairs Department before they can proceed and that reimbursement must be in accordance with CU regulations.
In the case of the magazine, the Student Affairs Department received a project proposal and budget reimbursement request of 76,221.60 baht on 8 September. The request contained little more than the magazine’s table of contents, and Chaiyaporn reportedly asked for additional content to be sent before he would proceed with the acceptance process.
According to Prof Pomthong, although the proposal had not yet being accepted, the SGCU editorial division repeatedly asked for approval of their budget advance request, stating their hope to release the magazine on 25 September 2021, which had been promoted as the publishing date.
On 25 September, the SGCU editorial division submitted a digital version of the magazine. Chaiyaporn reviewed it and tentatively accepted the proposal on 7 October 2021, provided that those responsible for its production proceed “in accordance with the University regulations and announcements to check the content of the project beforehand to assure that it adheres to the law, good morals and manners, providing students with guidance as well as freedom of thought.”
Chaiyaporn refused to reimburse the publication costs because he contends that the editorial division failed to comply with these stipulations.
Testimony from the plaintiffs offers a different version of events. They state that they repeatedly checked with an officer at the Student Affairs Department over the proposal, but received no official response. They also state that when the Department sought additional information on the proposed content for the magazine, the editorial team provided them with full details. As a final version was still not ready, they submitted the magazine’s table of content to the Department on 13 September 2021.
Then, on 16 September, the Department abruptly insisted that it wanted to see the completed magazine before budget reimbursement could proceed. Believing this to be a violation of press freedom, the editorial team submitted a memorandum on 20 September, requesting that the Department consider the proposal without checking completed contents.
When no response was received, the plaintiffs came to suspect that the Department was intentionally trying to block the magazine’s publication.
Freedom at risk
This is not the first time that administrative decisions have interfered with freedom of academic expression at CU.
In February 2022, CU vice rector Chaiyaporn Puprasert announced disciplinary action against Netiwit Chotiphatphaisal and Pitchakorn Roeksomphong, the president and first vice president of the CU student government, for organising a ‘surprise activity’ for Freshmen Orientation on 20 July 2021. During the activity, monarchy critics like Parit Chiwarak, Panussaya Sitthijirawattanakul, and Prof Pavin Chachavalpongpun were invited to speak online without prior notice being given to the Office of Student Affairs.
Despite securing an overwhelming majority of votes during the student election, Netiwit was removed from his position using an outdated university point system designed to control student behaviour.
This was the second time Netiwit was removed from office. In 2017, CU dismissed him from the position of student council president for staging a symbolic protest during a university initiation ceremony. Citing King Chulalongkorn’s 1873 ban on prostration, Netiwit refused to prostrate himself in front of a statue of the king and walked out of an oath ceremony, a ritual held every year for freshmen students. One of Netiwit's friends was placed in a chokehold by a lecturer as he was leaving the scene.
The case ended in the Administrative Court, where he recovered some of the merit points deducted by the university. He was not reinstated into his position, however.
In April 2021, hundreds of scholars from North America, Europe and Asia jointly appealed to CU to stop an investigation of Nattapoll Chaiching, an academic who received a PhD from the University’s Faculty of Political Science. A minor mistake in his dissertation was alleged to have been an intentional effort to damage the reputation of the monarchy. Many were concerned that the politicised nature of the monarchy in Thailand would turn the investigation into a witch-hunt, undermining principles of academic integrity.
In October 2021, exchange students with the Harvard College in Asia Program (HCAP) were warned by programme organisers that they might face harassment and punishment from universities in Thailand including CU for attending political activities.