freedom of speech crisis

Last year, former High Court Chief Justice Robert French got dragged into a culture war. At the request of education minister Dan Tehan, French conducted a four-month long review into free speech at universities. The review came on the back of concerns, largely from the right, that free speech is under attack at universities.

French reached the conclusion that there was no evidence of a “freedom of speech crisis” at Australian universities. And while that should have been the end of it, the debate continues.

Most recently today, The Australian reported on its front page that campuses were “split over free speech”, after university chancellors (as opposed to vice-chancellors) indicated support for a so-called “model code”.

French recommended the introduction of a so-called “model code” on free speech, which university vice chancellors, fearing potential restrictions on their autonomy, were reluctant to adopt.

Why was there even a review?

The right across the western world have long been obsessed with universities and in the last few years the narrative of hyper-sensitive, censorious students shutting down debate and the expression of dangerous, offensive ideas has gathered momentum.

It’s an argument that gets aired out with overwhelming frequency in The Australian, and one to which many Coalition MPs are partial. When Tehan became Education Minister late last year following a reshuffle, he made tackling free speech issues one of his immediate priorities. That shift came at the cost of shelving a university sexual assault task force committed to by his predecessor Simon Birmingham.

The impetus for the review was a number of incidents which enraged conservative columnists, but which most regular students would likely know nothing about. At the University of Sydney, reactionary commentator Bettina Arndt tried to speak to the Liberal Club as part of her Fake Rape Crisis Tour, where she travelled the country arguing that statistics about sexual assault on campus are a hoax. Arndt was met with vigorous protests, which in turn aroused outrage. A furious Tehan suggested that protestors should have to pay security costs at events, an idea which University of Sydney vice-chancellor Michael Spence recently branded as “loony”.

Before Arndt, the University of Western Australia cancelled a talk by Quentin Van Meter, an American doctor known for denying the science concerning transgender people. 2017 saw more protests at the University of Sydney, over the screening of anti-feminist documentary The Red Pill, and during the marriage equality postal survey.

What did the review say?

After a four month review, French found there was no free speech crisis at Australian universities. But at 300 pages of dry, legalistic prose, the final report is long enough to be twisted around one’s favoured ideology.

And that’s exactly what happened when it was released in April. As Crikey reported at the time, the Nine papers led with French’s conclusion about the lack of a free speech crisis. Somehow, this critical point did not warrant a mention in The Australian. Instead, an “exclusive” by the paper’s legal affairs editor Chris Merritt focused on French’s endorsement of a “model code” for freedom of speech at universities.

The code, outlined in the appendix to the report, sets out some principles relating to freedom of speech on campus — including guarantees of academic freedom, and a statement that there is no duty to “protect students from feeling offended, shocked or insulted”.

Why are university leaders split?

University bosses welcomed French’s findings about the lack of a free speech crisis, feeling a sense of vindication after much unnecessary scrutiny. Universities Australia, whose leadership is comprised of vice-chancellors, have expressed some reservations about implementing the “model code”.

However The Australian this morning reported a “split” on campuses, after chancellors came out in support of the code. The paper claimed that since chancellors run governing boards, they could effectively overrule vice-chancellors, who are in charge of daily operations. It’s unclear whether this hierarchy is strictly true. In some university contexts, the division of responsibilities at the higher level differ. Further, all institutions would certainly maintain some degree of collaborative decision-making, especially concerning a big policy change, such as implementing a guiding code.

It’s also misleading to suggest, as The Australian has in comment pieces, that vice-chancellors are somehow opposing freedom of speech by blocking the code. Some, such as Sydney’s Michael Spence, and Ian Jacobs at the University of New South Wales, have said they are still actively considering the code, but were unsure about whether special rules were needed, and how such rules could be harmonised along with existing policies. Some universities, like Monash, aren’t implementing the code, because its substance is already covered by the institution’s existing policies. The code is hardly the transformative instrument its conservative proponents want it to be. Nor is it likely to place serious restrictions on universities as some in the sector fear it might.

Who actually cares?

The French report’s key conclusion should be added to the weighty mound of evidence that the “free speech” crisis is an exaggerated conservative myth. The very incidents which triggered French’s report were at the end of the day quite innocuous — Spence described the Arndt affair as “a little protest” deliberately misrepresented for political gain.

Still, they’re enough to incense politicians like Tehan, and fellow Liberal Amanda Stoker, who recently wrote to Spence decrying the folly of the censorious left. They also get a disproportionate degree of coverage in conservative media, emboldened by Morrison’s election win.

In the last three days alone, The Australian has published several news articles, four comment pieces, numerous letters, and an editorial all about free speech on campus.

Much like the Ramsay Centre, the French report is another confusing culture war, of trivial relevance to most people.

Does any further action need to be taken regarding free speech on campus? Let us know by sending your comment and full name to [email protected]

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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