Free speech on campus is a hot topic for Australian universities

Storm in a teacup or thunder down under? Australia’s universities and politicians are mired in fierce debate over the protection or control of free speech on campus

Protests, censorship and political correctness have led to free speech being stifled. Sound familiar? How about dismissal of these concerns as faux hysteria by reactionaries? Ditto. Yet the headlines declaring ‘crises of free speech’ are not – this time – emanating from UK campuses. Instead the familiar argument has erupted on the far side of the world, in Australia. And it has gone to the top of the government’s education agenda.

Last month, deputy opposition leader Tanya Plibersek was pushed to declare that there was no free speech crisis at Australian universities during a higher education conference in Canberra after prime minister Scott Morrison launched an inquiry into the matter in November.

University staff and students should be free to teach, learn, debate and research without political interference

Led by former High Court chief justice Robert French, who is chancellor of the University of Western Australia, the government inquiry has been set up to investigate concerns about the influence of left-wing activists. The flames were fanned in late 2018 when author Bettina Arndt was confronted by student protestors when she attempted to speak at the University of Sydney. Arndt, who was targeted after rejecting claims that there is a ‘rape crisis’ in Australian universities, told the Sydney Morning Herald that Australian VCs were “cowering” in the face of “small, noisy minority groups [who] can control our campuses”.

In leading the review, French is being asked to come up with guidelines for free speech similar to the Chicago principles (see box, next page). However, his remit will look wider than the established university debating channels, extending into the ‘social environment’ of the university. That could include any event hosted on campus by a student group.

French, who is considered a liberal judge, appears to support a similar line to the Committee on Freedom and Expression at the University of Chicago. He has said he would observe “the legitimate institutional autonomy of Australian universities” in coming up with his own framework and in a speech in October at Charles Darwin University (in Darwin, Northern Territories), French said universities should “maintain a robust culture of open speech and discussion even though it may involve people hearing views that they find offensive.”

But he will have to consider that many Australian universities already have their own moral codes in place. How widely should the rules of his code be applied? At any rate, the report will be advisory in nature. “An important object of the review will be the production of a resource including a model code which can be used as a point of reference in any consideration by universities of their existing rules and guidelines relating to the protection of freedom of speech on campus,” French said.

Australian prime minister Scott Morrison has ordered a review into campus free speech

In a press release from November, Australian minister for education Dan Tehan said the review would “promote and protect freedom of expression and freedom of intellectual inquiry in higher education”. He also said it would “assess international approaches” – further clues that Australia may be heading for widespread adoption (or recommendation, at least) of an iteration of the Chicago principles.

“Universities are important institutions where ideas are debated and challenged. We must ensure our universities are places that protect all free speech, even where what is being said may be unpopular or challenging,” Tehan said.

“The best university education is one where students are taught to think for themselves, and protecting freedom of speech is how to guarantee that.

“If necessary, the French Review could lead to the development of an Australian version of the Chicago Statement, which is a voluntary framework that clearly sets out a university’s commitment to promoting freedom of speech.”


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But not everyone is so enthusiastic about the project. In response to Tehan’s remarks, Universities Australia chair, prof Margaret Gardner, said: “In this context, it is unclear what issue the government is seeking to address.

“Australian universities have been on the public record through the ages affirming our longstanding commitment to informed evidence-based discussion and vigorous debate. Australian universities teach students how to think, not what to think – and we teach them to engage both with ideas they agree with and those they don’t agree with.

“As we reaffirmed only a week ago, we educate the next generation to engage with ideas, challenge themselves and others, and to do so using evidence and courtesy.

“University staff and students should be free to teach, learn, debate and research without political interference.”

Gardner noted some assertions in recent media reporting had mischaracterised academic freedom and downplayed the robust state of debate on university campuses.

“Some commentators on free speech at Australian universities have been very wide of the mark – jumping to the wrong conclusions or selectively quoting from university policies and codes.

“These same conclusions would not meet the threshold test of academic inquiry – informed by evidence and facts.

“They are made by advocates who appear to want government to override university autonomy with heavy-handed external regulation and red tape.”

It is not yet clear when the report will be published.


What are the Chicago principles?

When the US faced a series of ‘no-platforming’ incidents in 2014, the University of Chicago’s Committee on Freedom of Expression was formed. The committee’s founders, Robert J Zimmer
and Eric D Isaacs, pushed for a statement that would spell out the university’s “overarching commitment to free, robust and uninhibited debate and deliberation among all members of the university’s community”.

The resulting report recognised free expression as “an essential element of the university’s culture”. The committee asserted that the university had a responsibility to “promote a lively and fearless freedom of debate and deliberation, but also to protect that freedom when others attempt to restrict it”. Their recommendation was that even ideas considered by some or most university members to be disagreeable, offensive, unwise, immoral or wrongheaded should be open for discussion, and that those debates should be couched in civility and respect.

However, it also recommended “narrow exceptions” that included “expression that violates the law, that falsely defames a specific individual, that constitutes a genuine threat or harassment, that unjustifiably invades substantial privacy or confidentiality interests, or that is otherwise directly incompatible with the functioning of the university. In addition, the university may reasonably regulate the time, place, and manner of expression to ensure that it does not disrupt the ordinary activities of the university.”

Some 45 American colleges and universities have adopted or endorsed the Chicago principles.