How can anti-gay don teach rights course?

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US students question NMP’s stint as visiting professor
How can anti-gay don teach rights course?

By Celine Lim and Tay Shi’an

July 11, 2009 Print Ready Email Article

A NOMINATED Member of Parliament (NMP) who once made a police report after receiving a threatening letter, supposedly of gay origin, is now creating ripples in the US.

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VIEW AS NMP: Dr Thio has spoken out strongly in Parliament against homosexuality. ST FILE PICTURE

Dr Thio Li-ann is set to teach a course, Human Rights Law in Asia, at the New York University (NYU) School of Law in the fall semester in September, as a visiting professor.

But the National University of Singapore (NUS) law lecturer’s outspoken views about the gay community, made earlier, have raised the hackles of students at NYU.

Her appointment has prompted some of them to ask if someone who is perceived to be against gay rights should be picked to teach a course about human rights.

Some students and alumni went as far as to ask NYU to rescind Dr Thio’s invitation.

A student organisation also sent out mass e-mails to the student body to alert them to Dr Thio’s views so that students can make ‘fully informed decisions regarding class registration’.

The letter highlighted Dr Thio’s 2007 speech as an NMP, when Parliament was debating whether to repeal Section 377A of the Penal Code, which deems sex between men as a crime.

Dr Thio had spoken strongly against any change in the law. She had said homosexuality is immoral.

Dr Thio, whose NMP term expires next Friday, did not respond to queries from The New Paper, sent to her both directly and through NUS.

But NYU’s School of Law dismissed the calls to rescind Dr Thio’s invitation, saying she can offer a ‘valuable contribution’ to the intellectual life on campus, and that all its candidates are selected based on ‘a record of excellent scholarship and fine teaching’.

Its public affairs officer, Mr Jason Casell, said: ‘Many in our faculty, staff and student body will be in sharp disagreement with Professor Thio on the content of her speech, and we expect there will be 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.’

An NUS spokesman said an academic staff’s personal beliefs has no bearing on his or her academic appointment.

‘NUS staff are, however, expected to observe the university’s code of conduct, which emphasises three fundamental ethical principles: personal and professional integrity, respect for people and respect for the law and University governance.’

The buzz at NYU started last week, when NYU OUTLaw, an organisation for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender law students, sent out a mass mailer to the student body.

The group sent another statement on Wednesday, saying it believes Dr Thio’s ‘intolerant’ words raised ‘serious questions’ about her ‘fitness’ to teach a human rights course.

Mr Casell said Dr Thio was selected based on her published academic scholarship and not her speeches in Parliament.

The issue was picked up by several US websites and blogs.

One of them, Inside Higher Ed, published an e-mail response it had received from Dr Thio.

She defended her right to her ‘opinion… a cardinal principle for every academic community’ and alluded to the outcry as ‘a demanded uniformity’ or ‘political correctness’ decreed by the elite.

She added: ‘I cannot say I am impressed by this ugly brand of politicking, which I hope is not endemic.’

Dr Thio revealed that the president of an NYU student organisation committed to free debate, which she did not name, had written to welcome her.

She said its president had noted that the negative views expressed were not representative of the entire student body.

Not alone

Dr Thio also argued that she is not alone in her views. She wrote: ‘I think certain Americans have to realise the fact that there are a diversity of views on the subject and it is not a settled matter; there is no universal norm and it is nothing short of moral imperialism to suggest there is.’

Dr Thio’s appointment at NYU comes under the Hauser Global Law School Program, which seeks to expose students to legal scholars who come from and have been shaped by different countries and cultures.

She will teach two classes: Human Rights in Asia, which currently has a capacity of 45, and Constitutionalism in Asia, which is capped at 25 students.

The NYU debate comes three months after Dr Thio’s mother, lawyer Thio Su Mien, was featured as a central figure in the Aware leadership struggle.

She was the self-styled ‘feminist mentor’ of the new guard.

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