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Stanford undergraduate students conduct research on freedom of expression laws in Indonesia

Melodie Liu and Alisha Zhao spent the summer in Jakarta, Indonesia, as Summer Undergraduate Field Research Assistants working with a local NGO.

Neither Melodie Liu nor Alisha Zhao had been to Indonesia but both jumped at the opportunity to explore the law and discrimination in a different part of the world.

Liu, a senior majoring in history, is no stranger to travelling and living abroad, particularly in Asia, and was ready to take on a new challenge, one that aligned with her interests in international law.

Zhao, a junior majoring in political science and minoring in human rights, wanted more fieldwork experience and an international perspective on human rights law.

Liu and Zhao spent the summer in Jakarta as Stanford King Center Undergraduate Field Research Assistants working with a local NGO, the Institute for an Independent Judiciary (LeIP). 

From left to right: David Cohen, Alisha Zhao, Melodie Liu, and Dian Rositawati (LeIP)
From left to right: David Cohen, Alisha Zhao, Melodie Liu, and Dian Rositawati (LeIP)

As part of the program, Liu and Zhao conducted legal analysis and reviewed the circumstances and judgments of over 60 cases of hate speech and defamation from Singapore, India, Thailand, and the U.S. with comparisons to Indonesia. The goal was for this comparative work to contribute to LeIP's research on freedom of expression, by compiling an in-depth internal report for future reference and research.

Liu and Zhao worked with David Cohen, a professor in the classics department and director of the Stanford Center for Human Rights and International Justice. Cohen has spent over three decades researching freedom of speech in low- to middle-income countries.

“It was a pleasure to learn from LeIP and Professor Cohen” said Liu. “Their expertise is unmatched. I used to be focused squarely on becoming an academic, but like Professor Cohen, I want to earn both law and humanities degrees and serve in some sort of hybrid academic-practitioner capacity.”

“I’ve never had the experience of working at an organization so committed to their mission and passionate about the work,” said Zhao. “I also valued Professor Cohen’s mentorship throughout the experience. He pushed me to think even more critically and apply it to other aspects of my academic study.”

An informative experience

A typical day consisted of grabbing a cup of “kopi tobruk”, strong and sweet Indonesian-style coffee, and then settling in at the office to contribute to LeIP’s report on global case studies of freedom of speech.

But their time was far from a desk job.

A memorable learning experience for both Liu and Zhao was the opportunity to witness judicial trainings, including LeIP’s training of the incoming candidate judges for Indonesia’s family courts. Every judge in the Indonesian legal system is required to undergo years of training before they begin their official tenure and LeIP strives to incorporate a human rights curriculum into the judicial education sessions.

As the candidates discussed their candid opinions of how child marriage and divorce should be handled in court, Liu and Zhao gained insight into how religion can complicate the execution of the secular constitution. As a secular country with a ratified commitment to international human rights treaties, Indonesian laws often conflict with the conduct of family life in certain parts of Indonesia.

“Being able to observe these candidates’ discussions made me realize the importance of understanding religion before I purport to understand the law,” said Liu, “an important lesson for the U.S. context as well.”

Looking forward

Liu and Zhao’s summer work as a King Center undergraduate field researchers was also eligible for a Stanford Cardinal Quarter, as a full-time, quarter-long, public service experience designed to integrate students’ academic learning with field-based experience.

The King Center’s partnership with the Haas Center for Public Service and the Cardinal Service initiative furthers the center’s goal to provide opportunities to students to participate in field research in low- and middle-income countries.

Looking ahead, Zhao plans to attend law school and focus on public interest law. Working at LeIP this past summer has reaffirmed her perspective – the necessity to value and preserve human rights – as well the importance of grassroots organizing in the community.

Liu is writing an honors thesis in history and practicing her Mandarin, hoping to return to Asia and continue working on human rights and freedom of speech issues.

“My experience working in Indonesia under Professor Cohen provided a foundation of research and legal analysis for me to continue my studies," said Liu. “In the future, I don't want to return to Indonesia as a tourist; I want to contribute in any substantive way I can to ongoing efforts for positive change.”

Please note that prior to January 2024, the King Center’s Undergraduate Research Fellow Program was known as the Undergraduate Research Assistant Program.