American and South Korean Professors Fight For Academic Freedom In Controversy Over “Comfort Women” Publications

We have been following assaults on academic freedom not just in the United States in recent years but abroad in recent years. This includes a researcher in Sweden who recently stopped Covid research after a harassment campaign due to his findings of the low risk poised by children returning to school. In South Korea, another such battle is waging over a publication by J. Mark Ramseyer, the Mitsubishi Professor of Japanese Legal Studies at Harvard Law School, suggesting that Korean “comfort women” from World War II were likely contracted, not forced, by the Japanese military. It is a theory that is understandably outrageous and hurtful for many. Ramseyer’s writings have been denounced and even cities like Philadelphia have passed condemnations of his work. What is more concerning is the effort to fire Ramseyer or bar the publication that ran his theory. Now South Korean faculty who stood up for academic freedom are being targeted, even though they did not write in support of Ramseyer’s theory as opposed to his right to publish his views.

Ramseyer published an article in an academic journal, the International Review of Law and Economics, that described the comfort women as prostitutes who willingly consented to contracts for sex.  He further caused an uproar with an op-ed in a Japanese newspaper describing the “comfort-women-sex-slave story” as “pure fiction.”

The publications set off a firestorm in Korea where surviving comfort women have been given a special nursing home and are honored as victims and called  “halmoni”, the term for “grandmother.” There are many reports of rape, beatings, and abuse of such women from various countries by the Japanese military. However, Professor Ramseyer sought to offer a contrary view that many women may have been consensual sex workers and published his research in International Review of Law and Economics.

The International Review has refused to take down 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 page of the journal, you are met with this warning:

“The International Review of Law and Economics is issuing an Expression of Concern to inform readers that concerns have been raised regarding the historical evidence in the article listed above. These claims are currently being investigated and the International Review of Law and Economics will provide additional information as it becomes available.”

When you hit the link for the abstract on the article, there is no additional information.

There have been prior researchers who have suggested that some women were not forced but contracted by the Japanese.  Most academics reject such claims and insist that these women were forced sex workers. That is the type of debate that should be able to waged between academics without calls for termination or banning whole journals. My interest is not with the merits but right of such opposing views to be published and debated.

There are now campaigns against South Korean professors who argued for academic freedom in being able to discuss such theories and the underlying evidence. Two such professors are Joseph Yi of Hanyang University (South Korea).and Joseph Phillips of Yonsei University (South Korea). The professors wrote not in defense of Ramseyer’s theory but his right (and their right) to debate such issues as academics without threats of retaliation or termination. Their essay in The Diplomat opposed the suppression of such work in South Korea and other countries. As a result, students and alumni at Hanyang University demanded the firing of Professor Yi, proving the very point of their article about the destruction of academic freedom and free speech values.

Yi wrote about his experience growing up in South Korea and the long period of restrictions on academics questioning anti-communist narratives and other subjects. He celebrated the emergence of academic freedom in being able to discuss such topics and challenges majoritarian views. That ended when he and Professor Phillips stood up for academic freedom on the subject of comfort women.

The two professors wrote a compelling account of academic freedom based in the writing of such classical liberal theories as John Stuart Mill. I have previously written from the same Millian perspective in support of subjects like free speech, privacy, and academic freedom. See, e.g., Jonathan Turley, The Loadstone Rock:  The Role of Harm In The Criminalization of Plural Unions, 64 Emory L. J.  1905 (2015).

This week in a column in the Asian Times, Yi described how prior South Korean researchers have cited interviews that contradicted the mainstream view of comfort women and faced suppression and even a threat of criminal prosecution. He wrote:

“Disagreements over history, including the interpretation and veracity of personal accounts, have filled journals and books for centuries. Resolving such disagreements requires empirical research and analysis that expand, test, and – if warranted – contest each other’s claims. If an article’s evidence, such as on comfort women contracts, is (allegedly) faulty, then critics should produce another with, better evidence.

But this process breaks down when politically offensive research is subject to intense, moralistic critique, while ideologically correct claims are not.”

The move to bar the journal itself is an example of this anti-free speech movement. We have seen such efforts in the United States and they can amount to a sanitized version of book burning.

Professor Ramseyer is a scholar with a stellar background that includes an extensive background in Japanese studies and considerable time spent in that country. He is a serious academic who put forward research that he believes challenges the dominant theory on comfort women. Rather than engage him on his research, many have turned to a cancelling campaign to have him fired and, now in South Korean, a campaign to fire those who defend his right to publish such opposing views.

The campaign has worked. Relatively few academics have voiced their support for Professor Ramseyer’s right to publish his research and views. Indeed, there is not a groundswell of support for academics like Yi and Phillips in fighting for academic freedom. That is the point of cancelling campaigns. They are meant to not only silence opposing views but to intimidate others in supporting or publishing such views in the future.  In both Senate testimony and 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 precursors but we have never seen the alliance of academics, the media, and major corporations in pushing for speech controls and censorship with government officials.

We have been discussing efforts to fire professors who voice dissenting views on various issues including an effort to oust a leading economist from the University of Chicago as well as a leading linguistics professor at Harvard and a literature professor at Penn. Sites like Lawyers, Guns, and Money feature writers like Colorado Law Professor Paul Campus who call for the firing of those with opposing views (including myself).  Such campaigns have targeted teachers and students who contest the evidence of systemic racism in the use of lethal force by police or offer other opposing views in current debates over the pandemic, reparations, electoral fraud, or other issues.

As a history nut, I would like to read both sides of this issue, including the views of Professor Ramseyer. However, many are seeking to prevent me and others from having access to those views. The effort is to stop others from considering his evidence and his analysis rather than refuting his views. As Professors Yi and Phillips have courageously stated in South Korea, it is the quintessential fight over academic freedom and free speech.  The fact that so few have stepped forward to add their voices of support only shows how much ground has already been lost to these campaigns of intimidation and harassment.

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Author: jonathanturley


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