Our journalism usually sits behind a paywall, but we believe this is the time to make more of our content freely available to as many readers as possible. For more free coverage, sign up to COVID-19 Watch.
campus free speech
(Image: AAP/Paul Miller)

When conservative commentator Bettina Arndt gave a talk at the University of Sydney last year, claiming feminists were over-inflating rates of sexual assault on campus, she was met by protesters. Activists stood at the door to the student Liberal Club event, blocking the 40 or so attendees from entering. People charged, the riot squad arrived, and the event became fodder for conservatives alleging a growing free speech crisis on Australian campuses.  

Since then the Morrison government has launched what many call a war on campus activism. In a move criticised by Universities Australia and vice-chancellors across the country, Education Minister Dan Tehan announced a review last November into whether there is sufficient protection of free speech at universities. The review is being led by former chief justice of the High Court Robert French.

While the review also looks into threats against instructors’ academic freedom, Tehan is particularly concerned with “platforming” on campus. “Those that oppose the views of others literally try to shut those views down [and] cause security costs to those groups that [are] prohibitive for them to put on events,” he told 2GB at the time.

Fighting for the facts

Of course, Arndt’s clash at Sydney Uni wasn’t the first time a controversial speaker was met with resistance at universities. Melbourne’s La Trobe University tried to shut down another of Arndt’s “fake rape crisis” talks on their campus last year, on the grounds that her argument didn’t “align with the values of the university and the strong campaign they’ve been running against sexual violence on campus”.

The University of Western Australia cancelled a talk by “transgender sceptic” Quentin Van Meter after organisers failed to provide required risk assessment paperwork given the anticipated protests. In 2017 there were widely reported protests over screenings of the controversial anti-feminist documentary The Red Pill.

The National Union of Students is worried about speakers like Arndt, Van Meter, and those offering skewed evidence and claims unsupported by experts in their respective fields. Their most recent cause for concern: Arndt’s flyers have been found in Sydney University STEM lecture theatres and under the doors of male students’ dorms.

The flyers read:

Did you know that student services fees are being used to promote lies about a rape crisis on campus? Lies which risk you being thrown out of university?

The evidence? That the Australian Human Rights Commission found in 2017 that only 0.8% of students had experienced sexual assault in the past year. The AHRC actually reported that figure as 1.6% (students were asked about assaults in 2015 and 2016), and it’s only representative of assaults in a university setting. The percentage jumps to 6.9% when talking about students’ sexual assaults more generally.

While NUS President Desiree Cai agrees that universities should be places of debate, she tells Crikey “you can’t conduct a debate that doesn’t hold the principle of truth to it”.

“The NUS Women’s Department has been a big part of the push to recognise that rape and sexual assault is a big problem on campus. So to see people denying what experts and our universities have come to support is really bad to see.”

Policy vs practice

Australian universities are in fact already bound by laws and internal policies to protect intellectual freedom. The Higher Education Support Act 2003 requires all universities to uphold “free intellectual inquiry in relation to learning, teaching and research”. Universities’ individual codes of conduct affirm the institutions’ commitment to students’ intellectual freedom, and the pursuit of critical and open inquiry.

Whether or not such policies adequately defend free speech is hotly contested by those at the Institute of Public Affairs (IPA), who have conducted an audit of universities’ protection of free speech and were approached by Crikey for comment. But it’s how universities deal with protests against speakers, or make decisions over allowing certain speakers onto campus, that has attracted the most criticism and concern.

The IPA argue that universities should pay for extra security when student clubs invite controversial guests on campus, and adopt an Australian version of the Chicago Statement (a document used by some US universities that recognises free speech on campuses in an issue and promises to defend it). Dan Tehan has expressed support for both policies.

French’s inquiry will seek answers to these questions. Are universities obligated to intervene and ban speakers who skew facts or make claims not based in evidence? Can a line be drawn between protecting free speech and protecting against false speech?

The broader problem

Professor Katharine Gelber, from the University of Queensland, argues that Arndt’s run-in with student activists is symbolic of a wider issue. “[It’s] become a touchstone for the free speech crisis not because there is a free speech crisis, but because there is a political global movement that is very unhappy at some progressive social movements that have gained momentum in the last decade,” she tells Crikey.

“Free speech doesn’t have to be pretty. A lot of these free speech proponents argue that everyone has to be nice to each other and no one can protest. But protest is an emblematic way that people have expressed their free speech historically.”

She recognises that the most difficult situations for universities to adjudicate are where people are saying things that aren’t unlawful, but are just wrong (think climate change deniers or anti-vaxxers). The situation becomes more complicated when these speakers have been invited by student clubs who, unlike the actual university, don’t have the same obligations to provide students with well-substantiated information.

“Universities are not town halls,” Professor Gelber says. “Universities don’t have an obligation to facilitate absolutely anyone from speaking on campus, or to foot the bill for heightened security costs.”

She argues that in limited circumstances, a university can pass off the security bill to the event organisers, or cancel the event where the security risk is too high. And where a controversial event is going ahead, the university should issue a public statement saying that the speaker violates their university values.

NUS President Cai doesn’t want any students to feel silenced, but says everyone should be able to substantiate their views.

“In our classrooms, we are told to have evidence for what we say. If you have a different view to the majority you should be prepared to back that up, face the consequences of what you say, and be proud to wear your beliefs.”

Do you think there’s a free speech problem at Australian universities? Send your comments to [email protected].

Peter Fray

This crisis will cut hard and deep but one day it will be over.

What will be left? What do you want to be left?

I know what I want to see: I want to see a thriving, independent and robust Australian-owned news media. I want to see governments, authorities and those with power held to account. I want to see the media held to account too.

Demand for what we do is running high. Thank you. You can help us even more by encouraging others to subscribe — or by subscribing yourself if you haven’t already done so.

If you like what we do, please subscribe.

Peter Fray
Editor-In-Chief of Crikey

Support us today