Opinion | Sunday, 21 March 2010

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Once, there was a University...

Today I tried a little experiment of the ‘Google-esque’ school of scientific enquiry. [Note: sorry to keep bringing up complicated internet jargon like ‘Facebook’ and so on, but for the benefit of those who don’t know what even ‘Google’ is... well, perhaps you ought to consider resigning from the human race altogether, and find yourself a nice little niche in the Plant Kingdom instead.]

But back to the experiment, which was intended to work like this: I type a number words into the Google ‘search field’... making sure that the ‘Fittex’ parameter is set to ‘Internet’ (as opposed to just ‘Malta’), and above all that it was set to search the World Wide Web, and not just ‘Stampi’ (an important detail, for reasons that shall soon become apparent); and on its part, Google comes back to me with an exhaustive list of possible matches, having presumably searched every online database in the world.

The words I typed in were: ‘University - student - charged - obscenity’.

Now, in case I inadvertently minimised the risks involved in such a dangerous experiment, please be warned that any online search involving the word ‘obscenity’ – or, from my experience, any word of any kind whatsoever – can and will be interpreted by your search engine as an open invitation to you-know-what.
So here is a friendly little nugget of advice: DON’T TRY THIS AT HOME... unless, of course, you are you are 100% certain that your IP address is not being tracked by the CIA. You have been warned...

OK, now that the necessary legal disclaimers are out of the way, you may well be asking: why? Why type those words in particular... and not just ‘boobs’ and ‘ass’, like everyone else types when trawling the net for smut?
The answer is simple: following the twin prosecutions of Mark Camilleri and Alex Vella Gera over the publication of an ‘obscene’ short story, I have to come to suspect that the University of Malta may well be the only academic institution in history to have ever reported its own students to the police... at least, over this kind of issue.
If my suspicion turns out to be correct, I shall be nominating University rector Prof. Juanito Camilleri to the Guinness Book of World Records, so that his unique achievement receives the international acknowledgement it so richly deserves.

And so far, the results appear promising. Uppermost on the list of ‘relevant hits’ was an online newspaper called ‘The Badger Herald’ – no, I can’t get over that name either – and the story was entitled: ‘University of Kansas accused of obscenity’.
Now this was an overwhelming coincidence: I myself attended the University of Kansas way back in 1991, and am the proud possessor of a KU sweater (and badger) to prove it.
I also attended the University of Malta, and lo and behold: both institutions appear to have been involved in obscenity-related court cases. But with a significant difference. In the Malta scenario, it was (as explained) the University rector himself who initiated the criminal charges against Camilleri and Vella Gera – who, by the way, face a possible nine months in prison, as well as a fine of €400.
In the case of KU, it was the State of Kansas that filed charges against the University administration, for distributing ‘obscene material’ to its students (the class in question was entitled ‘Human Sexuality in Everyday Life’, which I suppose is self-explanatory) – and there were no prison sentences or fines involved.

Elsewhere, I found an interesting case in which a graduate from the University of Indiana was charged with obscenity for screening ‘adult movies’ at the campus cafeteria. But again, it was the police who intervened, following a report by (it seems) another student. The University authorities had nothing to do with it at all... and even if they did, the nature of the case was considerably different, in that (unlike Vella Gera’s short story) the offensive material was not produced by the accused himself.

And that’s about it. Everything else Google threw at me was either entirely irrelevant, or involved court action against students over a wide variety of offences – for the most part, typical ‘campus crimes’ such as drug use, assault and battery, date rape, smoking in non-smoking dorms, damaging campus property, etc. – none of which was remotely comparable to our own obscenity charges.
That said, there were plenty of examples of students reported to the police by their own Universities... mostly involving Chinese students on trial for sedition after protesting against the University authorities, among endless variations of the same theme from other military dictatorships around the world.

Bottom line: I have yet to find a single example (from a Western Democracy, at any rate) in which a University took criminal action against its own students for daring to write, and publish, a work of literature. Naturally, I invite you all to contradict my conclusions – such, after all, is the nature of serious scientific experimentation – but from where I’m standing, it does look very much like yet another ‘Only In Malta’ scenario.

And not just because of the blatant, ongoing human rights violation, either. OK, I admit it’s been a while since I took an active interest in campus politics – to be honest, under normal circumstances I would probably find the social and economic history of Marmite a good deal more intriguing – but following this week’s revelations, I decided to take a peek behind the scenes of the KSU election campaign.
As you may be aware, the newly-formed ‘Moviment Independenti’ shall now contest the election to fill the niche vacated by Pulse: a left-wing student group which withdrew its candidates in protest at the lack of proportional representation.
Well, according to this MI group – and I admit the source is biased, and needs to be double-checked – the University’s Electoral Commission is now composed exclusively of members of the Studenti Demokristjani Maltin (SDM).

Um... allow me to expand on this remarkable concept, as I am still trying to persuade myself that I have somehow got it all wrong. For unless the entire process has been overhauled while I wasn’t looking, the job of an ‘electoral commission’ is to oversee the running of an election. You know, to ensure that fairness is observed throughout; that basic concepts such as ‘one student, one vote’ are applied across the board; to ascertain that only registered voters actually vote... all those important little practical details, without which no election can be declared legally valid.

Let me repeat those last words, in case the implications haven’t yet penetrated the innermost recesses of the KSU: “can be declared legally valid”

And yet, at the student council election at the University of Malta (an institution which will no doubt produce tomorrow’s Prime Ministers and Opposition leaders, by the way) the same student political organisation that was, until last Thursday, the only registered party still contesting the election, also enjoys a monopoly of the administrative council that both establishes and applies the regulations governing the election in the first place.
I mean, for crying out loud. And I used to think that national elections were all screwed up...

At this point, you may be wondering whether my earlier scientific experiment has somehow diluted my cerebral faculties, to the extent that I am getting my academic institutions in a twist. Is this really the University of Malta at Tal-Qroqq we’re talking about here? Or is it the University of Mugabe in Harare?

As for myself I’m no longer sure... just I am no longer sure I still want to be associated with a University whose rector suppresses student publications, and reports their editors and writers to the police. I don’t know how it happened, but evidently it did. Somewhere in between the ongoing suppression of freedom of speech, and what appears to be a rigged election for the student council next Thursday, the Tal-Qroqq campus has ceased to resemble a University at all, and instead looks like an out-take from Some Mothers Do ‘Ave ‘Em.

Sad, that it should have come to this.


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