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Visiting professor at NYU, Thio Li-Ann, stirs controversy with her remarks on homosexuality.

Thio Li-Ann at center of controversy in New York University

Darren Boon

“Crazy times” was what Leigh Pasqual described Dr Thio Li Ann’s appointment as visiting professor at New York University (NYU) on a Facebook note.

Dr Thio, 41, an ex-Nominated Member of Parliament (NMP) will be teaching 'Human Rights Law in Asia' during NYU's Fall 09 Semester under the faculty’s Global Visiting Professor of Law programme.

Dr Thio’s biodata on the National University of Singapore Faculty of Law website lists one of her teaching subjects as 'Human Rights Law in Asia'.  She has a keen research interest in ‘Constitutionalism and Human Rights in Asia’ and ‘International Human Rights Law and The Rights of Peoples’, and has written extensively on the issues of human rights.

Ms Pasqual, a Singaporean living in New York put up the note on her Facebook page after receiving a forwarded email about Dr Thio’s appointment sent out by OUTlaw.  OUTlaw is an organisation for LGBT students as well as for LGBT supporters and friends, and “actively promotes queer visibility on campus and acts as watchdog for LGBT issues arising within NYU and across the globe”.

OUTlaw issued a board statement to condemn Dr Thio's parliamentary speeches over her support to keep 377A as “intolerant” and “reprehensible”.  Her statements raise “serious questions about her fitness to teach a course on human rights”.  Yet OUTlaw also notes Dr Thio's contribution to the field of academia and to her being “a fierce defender of minority rights”.

At the same time, OUTlaw has urged the law faculty to issue a statement to condemn Dr Thio’s comments in parliament and reassert the faculty’s commitment to diversity.  However, the Board hopes to engage in “respectful and productive dialogue about the boundaries of human rights” instead of fighting Dr Thio’s offensive views by silencing her.

Meanwhile Ms Pasqual has through her Facebook note urged “any self-respecting NYU student” to question the appointment of Dr Thio by writing in to the Vice Deans of the faculty.

“I hope you will question this appointment of someone who openly supports the criminalisation of gay people, who professes to be an expert in the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) but fails to practise what it preaches, and who uses her evangelical beliefs to colour her application of the law,” Ms Pasqual wrote.

Ms Pasqual also highlighted Dr Thio’s mother Dr Thio Su Mien’s as the “mastermind” of the failed “coup” at AWARE.

Calling Dr Thio’s appointment an oxymoron, Ms Pasqual said that one could not be a good human rights lawyer while espousing the opposite of what human rights are about.

“As I said she also professes to be an expert on CEDAW.  And one of the key elements of CEDAW is to ensure that countries’ constitutions adequately reflect the rights of people, including women and gay people,” Ms Pasqual said.

A lively exchange ensued over Ms Pasqual's Facebook note.   Nick Lum was one who defended NYU's move.   He argued that Dr Thio's appointment was made possible because institutions in the United States favour a variety of dissenting views, arguments and perspectives to allow students to have a “full flavour” and understanding of different perspectives.

Mr Lum wrote: “To be fair, Dr Thio is a rather known human rights lawyer.  It is only the one point on homosexuality that she allows her religion to cloud her rationality.”

He later added that it would be better to challenge Dr Thio’s faith rather than her credentials during her lectures so that she would be “able to see the light and contradictions in her actions”.

Tris Xavier, 25, doing a law pupillage said: “Dr Thio might be the closest thing we have to a constitutional law advocate in Singapore.  Her view on constitutionalism comes the closest to the US view on it.”

Mr Xavier told Ms Pasqual: “I’d advise you to alternatively not allow your view of her religion-imposing, wrong as she was, to colour your view of her teachings.”

When queried by The Online Citizen over Dr Thio’s appointment, Jason Casell, Public Affairs Officer, School of Law, said that Dr Thio had been selected for the appointment based on her published academic scholarship, and not on the basis of her parliamentary statements in her capacity as an NMP.

“We believe that she will make a valuable contribution to our Global classroom and to intellectual life of the law school when she is here this fall,” Mr Casell said.

Noting that the Law school has a long record of opposing discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation and for being supportive of the GLBT community, Ms Casell believes that there will be members of the faculty, staff and student body who will disagree with Dr Thio over the content of her speech.

“We expect a dynamic exchange on these issues.  This is what makes institutions of higher learning so indispensable to our society -- the ability to provide a forum for these kinds of exchanges,” he added.

Cary Nelson, national president of the American Association of University Professors, said that he would not advise NYU to rescind the invitation to Thio to teach there. But he said that it would be legitimate to raise questions about whether she should be teaching human rights.

"Academic freedom protects you from retaliation for your extramural remarks, but it does not protect you from being prohibited from teaching in an area where you are not professionally competent, and there are doubts on whether she has the competency in human rights," Nelson said. He said that there is in fact an "international consensus, save a few countries like Iran" that gay people should not be treated as criminals.

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Excerpts from Inside Higher Ed:

Should someone who teaches human rights back human rights for all people?

That's the question being raised by some students at New York University's law school, who are upset that a visiting professor in the fall semester, slated to teach human rights law, is Thio Li-ann of the National University of Singapore, an outspoken opponent of gay rights. Thio has argued repeatedly and graphically that her country should continue to criminalize gay sexual acts.

NYU OUTLaw, a group of gay and lesbian students at the law school, last week sent an e-mail message to all students drawing attention to Thio's statements, saying that it was crucial to "raise awareness of anti-gay statements made by an NYU visiting professor" because "it is important for LGBT students and allies to be aware of her views in order to make fully informed decisions regarding class registration."

Read the full article here.

From Above The Law:

Academic freedom is a beautiful thing, essential to our nation's celebrated system of higher education. And, to borrow the words of Dick Cheney on gay marriage, "freedom means freedom for everyone" -- including people whose ideas we might not like, or even find repugnant.

How far should academic freedom extend? That's an issue being faced right now at NYU Law School. The following message went out to the law student community last week:

Continue reading here.