We have witnessed attacks on academic freedom in recent years not only in the United States but also abroad. This includes a Swedish researcher who recently stopped Covid research after a harassment campaign because he found that children returning to school are at low risk. Another such battle for publication is being waged in South Korea by J. Mark Ramseyer, Mitsubishi professor of Japanese law studies at Harvard Law School, who suggests that Korean WWII “comfort women” are likely to be signed by the EU and not forced by the Japanese military. It’s a theory that is understandably outrageous and hurtful to many. Ramseyer’s writings have been denounced and even cities like Philadelphia condemned his work. As for more, the effort is to fire Ramseyer or lock the publication that ran his theory. Now South Korean faculties are being targeted that campaigned for academic freedom, even though they did not write for Ramseyer’s theory, but for his right to publish his views.
Ramseyer published an article in a journal, the International Review of Law and Economics, describing the comfort women as prostitutes who willingly consented to contracts for sex. He also caused a stir with a comment in a Japanese newspaper describing the “comfort women sex slave story” as “pure fiction”.
The releases sparked a firestorm in Korea where surviving comfort women are given a special nursing home and honored as victims. They are called “Halmoni”, the term for “grandmother”. There are many reports of rape, beatings and mistreatment of such women from different countries by the Japanese military. However, taking a contrary view, that many women may have been consensual sex workers, Professor Ramseyer published his research in the International Review of Law and Economics.
The International Review refused to remove the article despite a campaign for such removal – and now a campaign for academic databases to ban the journal itself for refusing to delete the article. When you go to the journal page you will see the following warning:
“The International Review of Law and Economics issues a concern note to inform readers that concerns have been raised about the historical evidence in the article listed above. These claims are currently under investigation and the International Review of Law and Economics will provide additional information as it becomes available. “
If you click the link for the summary of the article, no additional information will be displayed.
There have been previous researchers who have suggested that some women were not forced but contracted by the Japanese. Most scientists deny such claims, insisting that these women were forced sex workers. This is the kind of debate that should be had between academics without asking for resignation or banning entire magazines. My interest is not in merit, but in the right to publish and discuss such conflicting views.
There are now campaigns against South Korean professors who have advocated academic freedom to discuss such theories and the underlying evidence. Two such professors are Joseph Yi from Hanyang University (South Korea) and Joseph Phillips from Yonsei University (South Korea). The professors wrote not in defense of Ramseyer’s theory, but rather his right (and their right) to discuss subjects such as academics without threats of retaliation or dismissal. Her essay in The Diplomat opposed the suppression of such work in South Korea and other countries. As a result, Hanyang University students and alumni called for Professor Yi’s dismissal, which shows the real purpose of her article on the destruction of academic freedom and the values of freedom of speech.
Yi wrote about his experience in South Korea and the long period of restrictions on academics who questioned anti-communist narratives and other subjects. He celebrated the emergence of academic freedom by discussing such subjects and challenging the views of the majority. That ended when he and Professor Phillips advocated academic freedom on comfort women.
The two professors wrote a compelling report on academic freedom based on classic liberal theories such as John Stuart Mill. I have previously written from the same Millianic perspective to support topics like freedom of speech, privacy, and academic freedom. See e.g. B. Jonathan Turley, The Loadstone Rock: The Role of Harm in Criminalizing Multiple Unions, 64 Emory LJ 1905 (2015).
This week, in a column in the Asian Times, Yi described how previous South Korean researchers cited interviews that contradicted popular beliefs about comfort women and were subject to repression and even threats of prosecution. He wrote:
“Disagreements about history, including the interpretation and accuracy of personal accounts, have filled magazines and books for centuries. Resolving such disagreements requires empirical studies and analyzes that expand, test and – if justified – dispute each other’s claims. If the evidence of one article, such as comfort women contracts, is (allegedly) flawed, critics should come up with another with better evidence.
This process collapses, however, when politically offensive research is subjected to intense, moralistic criticism, but ideologically correct claims are not. “
Trying to lock the diary yourself is an example of this anti-free speech movement. We have seen such efforts in the United States and they can amount to an adjusted version of book burning.
Professor Ramseyer is a scientist with an eminent background that includes an extensive background in Japanese studies and considerable time in that country. He is a serious academic who brings up research he believes challenges the prevailing theory about comfort women. Instead of including him in his research, many have turned to a cancellation campaign to get him fired, and now a campaign in South Korea to dismiss those defending his right to post such opposing views.
The campaign worked. Relatively few scholars have advocated Professor Ramseyer’s right to publish his research and views. Indeed, there is no need to support academics like Yi and Phillips in their struggle for academic freedom. That’s when campaigns get canceled. They are not only intended to silence opposing views, but also to intimidate others into supporting or publishing such views in the future. In both the Senate Testimony and the House Testimony, I have discussed how we are witnessing an unprecedented attack on such core values in our country and around the world. There are historical forerunners, but we have never seen an alliance of academics, media, and big corporations advocating language control and censorship with government officials.
We discussed efforts to fire professors who express dissenting views on various subjects, including efforts to oust a leading economist from the University of Chicago, as well as a leading professor of linguistics at Harvard and a professor of literature at Penn. Sites like Lawyers, Guns, and Money feature authors like the Colorado Law Professor Paul Campus calling for the dismissal of people with opposing views (including myself). Such campaigns target teachers and students who dispute evidence of systemic racism in the use of lethal force by the police or have other conflicting views in current debates on pandemics, reparations, electoral fraud or other issues.
As a history nut, I want to read both pages of this issue, including Professor Ramseyer’s views. However, many try to prevent myself and others from gaining access to these views. The effort is to prevent others from considering his evidence and analysis rather than refuting his views. As Professors Yi and Phillips courageously declared in South Korea, this is the epitome of the struggle for academic freedom and freedom of speech. The fact that so few have stepped forward to add their support votes only shows how much ground has already been lost to these campaigns of intimidation and harassment.