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Freedom of intimidation in Poland: Scandal at the University of Silesia in Katowice

Katowice, Poland – In late May, police in the southern Polish city of Katowice interrogated seven students who had complained about one of their professor Ewa Budzyńska’s homophobic and radical Catholic conduct during sociology lectures at the University of Silesia. The ongoing case is only the latest expression of broader cultural tensions spilling over Poland’s academia and universities.

Rights groups fear “intimidation” against students of University of Silesia in Katowice

The Center for Monitoring of Xenophobic and Racist Behaviors, who provides legal support to the students, stated that interrogations were performed in the presence of lawyers from Ordo Iuris Institute, a notorious Catholic influence and lobby group in Poland. silesia university katowice

University of Silesia Disciplinary Ombudsman, who represented the students, is for his part threatened with up to three years in prison.

Commenting on the high-profile case, the Helsinki Foundation of Human Rights has opined that “bringing criminal proceedings in connection with students’ complaints about the quality of information conveyed by lecturers appear as abuse and may be used for intimidation.”

“The actions taken with regard to students are contrary to the fundamental principles of freedom of scientific discussions and disputes, which leads to a violation of the principle of university autonomy. The initiation of criminal proceedings despite the still unfinished disciplinary proceedings seems to be excessive and may be threatening,” added Julia Gerlich, lawyer at Helsinki Foundation of Human Rights Strategic Litigation Program.

The Faculty of Law of the University of Silesia has also expressed its support for the students and condemned the involvement of police and prosecution in the case of Prof. Ewa Budzyńska (picture above), currently in pre-trial.

Freedom of speech at the Katowice university in the spotlight

Professor Ewa Budzyńska had been a lecturer of sociology at the University of Silesia in Katowice for more than 28 years and recently taught a course on “Intergenerational ties in world families”. silesia university katowice

Her case began in March 2019, when students filed an official anonymous complaint to the Rector of the university accusing her of “forcing anti-choice ideology, homophobic views, anti-Semitism, denominational discrimination, information inconsistent with modern scientific knowledge, and promoting radical Catholic views.” Their complaint mentioned prof. Budzyńska’s teaching that “contraception is abortion” and “abortion is murder”, “gender ideology is like communism”, and “systematically emphasized that a normal family consists only of a man and a woman”.

Filing a complaint in situations like this is a disciplinary duty of students under the Polish Act on Higher Education.

In October last year, disciplinary committee ombudsman prof. Wojciech Popiołek initiated a disciplinary investigation regarding “suspected offenses against the duties and dignity of an academic teacher” and, in January, submitted a report that asked to punish prof. Budzyńska with a disciplinary reprimand.

In protest, the latter decided to leave the university and, in January, a “private person” filed a complaint with the prosecutor’s office to initiate an investigation into prof. Budzyńska’s case under art. 235 of the Criminal Code for “falsification of evidence”. The tables were turned, with prof. Budzyńska now being described as a victim, and the students standing as the accused.

Prof. Budzyńska has received support from ultra-right Christian radicals as well as from the higher echelons of Polish government:

“In the case of Prof. Ewa Budzyńska, I have been in contact with the authorities of the University of Silesia from the very beginning […] I will present a draft law to protect freedom of speech and research at Polish universities. We will not allow extremely ideologized environments to enforce censorship,” tweeted Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Science and Education at the time, Jaroslaw Gowin.

But as the Helsinki Foundation has pointed out, the “[Polish] Act on Higher Education indicates the mission of the higher education system and science is to provide the highest quality education and scientific activity, to shape civil attitudes, as well as to participate in social development and the creation of an economy based on innovation. The system of higher education and science operates in accordance with international standards, ethical principles and good practices in the field of education and scientific activity and taking into account the particular importance of social responsibility of science. All these values constitute the limit of freedom of speech within the academic debate.”

Legal support to prof. Budzyńska during the disciplinary hearings in the university of Silesia, now during the criminal investigation as well as for the draft law that ex-Minister Gowin mentioned were provided by lawyers from Ordo Iuris, a notorious and highly influential Catholic lobby group in Poland.

“Restoring the natural order”

Ordo Iuris Institute for Legal Culture Foundation is a fundamentalist Christian think tank founded in 2013 by two leaders of the Piotr Skargi Institute and building, over the years, a portfolio of legal and political battles against the so-called “liberal agenda”.

The organization became infamous in 2016 after lobbying for a near-total ban on abortion in Poland – unless the woman’s life was in danger, abortions were to be punishable with a prison sentence. In April this year, Ordo Iuris made another unsuccessful attempt to lobby in favour of a ban on abortion in the Polish Sejm. But reproductive rights are not their only target.

Prof. Budzyńska’s case is the latest in a series of “censorship of academic freedom” cases that Ordo Iuris has been carefully collecting from all over Poland for the last five years. Its aim is simple, yet entails long-term repercussions: create a catalyst for the amendments to the law on higher education that would prioritize the “axiology”, “the inherent values of Polish society”, and allow to protect lecturers from any criticism within the academic and student communities.

This, in turn, is all part of the bigger strategy that is outlined in the “Restoring the Natural Order” manifesto of Agenda Europe, a Christian think-tank founded in 2013 at the World Congress of Families and of which Ordo Iuris, and its parent organization, the Piotr Skargi Institute, quickly became one of the “luminaries”, or leading members.

But it gets even more complex: the World Congress of Families has been sponsored by Konstantin Malofeev: a Russian oligarch currently under EU sanctions and founder of the Russian think tank “Katechon”, whose aim is to spread fundamentalist Christian values, Malofeev has long been suspected of being a key link between Moscow, the World Congress of Families and its member organizations, including Ordo Iuris (see, among others, Klementyna Suchanow’s book To jest wojna. Kobiety, fundamentaliści i nowe średniowiecze).

Same targets on a different soil

The use of intimidation, abuse, and legal manipulation is not unique to Ordo Iuris in Poland. Similar groups operate in Hungary, Slovakia, Moldova, and Ukraine. But the case with prof. Budzyńska cannot help but remind me of methods and rhetoric used by ultra-right groups in Ukrainian universities back in 2017.

When Oleksiy Kurinnyi, a lecturer at Kyiv Mohyla Academy, was accused of sexist behavior and sexual abuse, students filed a complaint with the Rector of the Academy, to no avail. The students tried to hold a protest against the lecturer but were attacked by members of ultra-right party VO Svoboda – invited by the Oleksiy Kurinnyi himself to “battle the enforcement of feminist, communists and LGBT agenda in the academic environment”.

When police arrived, they found no evidence of discrimination or violence, and instead interrogated the protestors to intimidate them into silence. Solidarity protests organized by students from other universities were derailed due to attacks and death threats from Ukrainian ultra-right Christian fundamentalist organizations – VO “Svoboda”, C14, St. Olga’s Sisterhood and its parent organization – “Katechon”. Police declared its inability to provide protection and guarantee the safety of the protestors, advising them to flee and hide.

Even if their modus operandi appears less sophisticated than that of Ordo Iuris, the targets of the above-mentioned organizations remain the same. The outcome of prof. Budzyńska’s case, despite her recent statement on the Ordo Iuris site and their own response, will affect the students in the University of Silesia but, most importantly, in universities across Poland. Intimidation and threats of legal prosecution may only intensify and, so far, communal solidarity and protests have been the only language of dialogue with the likes of Ordo Iuris in Poland.

By Alexandr Khlopenko

Alex is a lawyer and freelance journalist from Ukraine. He graduated from Taras Shevchenko National University of Kyiv and during that time got involved in activism against discrimination in higher education and ultra-right violence. Ukrainian neo-nazis still don’t like him. Alex is currently studying international business in Katowice, Poland.