Let all voices be heard, however distasteful

Bookmark and Share Freedom of Speech | Matthew Lesh
The Australian 3rd June, 2016

The decision of La Trobe University to suspend Marxist academic Roz Ward following her Facebook comments is more complex than it first appears.

Last week Ward, in a personal Facebook post, stated the Australian flag was "racist" and that it should be replaced with a "red one" - effectively calling for a communist revolution. The fact Ward is a co-founder of the Safe Schools program is an entirely separate issue. At stake is intellectual freedom on Australian campuses.

However, it is worth first considering how hypocritical her left-wing defenders are when it comes to freedom of speech. The National Tertiary Education Union has called the move an "anti-intellectual, anti-democratic attack" akin to the Soviet Union. However, it seems its belief in academic freedom is reserved only for the comrades it agrees with. The union does not speak out when non-Marxist academics are under fire.

For instance, these warriors for free speech were nowhere to be seen when esteemed University of Sydney poetry professor Barry Spurr was forced to resign in response to a political campaign by students. Even more striking, the NTEU was actively opposed to the Bjorn Lomborg-led Australian Consensus Centre at the University of Western Australia because he didn't play along with the fashionable thinking on how to respond to climate change.

That hypocrisy notwithstanding, Ward should be free to express her views, no matter how absurd they are.

The very essence of university life is that academics and students are able to ponder a diverse range of ideas, free from political pressure or fear of repercussions.

Although it may be legally permissible for La Trobe to stand down Ward for breaching her employment contract - we should defend absolutely her right to sign such a contract - that does not mean we should welcome this turn of events. A university should not be standing down academic staff for expressing their political opinions.

The irony is the Australian flag Ward called "racist" represents the kind of free society that permits her to make such a comment in the first place. History proves that there are very few countries that have flown the red flag that would offer her such liberty.

There is also nothing wrong with Marxists in our universities. Indeed, if our universities began removing academics simply for professing a Marxist viewpoint, that purge would obliterate most social science faculties.

The key issue facing universities is not one outspoken Marxist but the lack of alternative, non-Marxist voices. This episode is a chance to examine the importance of balancing Marxists in academe with liberal, libertarian and conservative perspectives.

Such a balancing might prevent the sort of absurdity presented by the University of NSW's Diversity Toolkit, which instructs staff and students to say Australia was "invaded", not "settled". That guide, which made national headlines in March, told students not to say that "Aboriginal people have lived in Australia for 40,000 years", because this "tends to lend support to migration theories and anthropological assumptions".

When we observe the direction universities are going, it is clear Ward is a victim of the sort of the politically correct culture now sweeping campuses.

The Institute of Public Affairs' Free Speech on Campus Audit 2016 found that four out of five Australian universities have policies or have taken action that unambiguously infringe free speech. In the name of shutting down differing perspectives, or even just political correctness, everyone's speech is now under threat on campus.

Just last month the Catholic Society at the University of Sydney had an event repeatedly interrupted by protesters, and the microphone disconnected multiple times, for having a speaker who endorsed relationships between men and women - a not particularly offensive notion.

Foreign Minister Julie Bishop has been interrupted during an address on campus, and assaulted by students when exiting the venue. Former Liberal MP Sophie Mirabella was shouted down and physically confronted during a guest lecture at the University of Melbourne. Tony Abbott, when he was prime minister, was forced to cancel a visit to Deakin University because of the security and logistical issues posed by student protests.

Meanwhile, university policies prohibit a wide variety of speech, including "insulting" and "unwelcome" comments, "offensive" language and, in some cases, "sarcasm" and hurt "feelings". These policies seriously chill free speech by discouraging students from making provocative statements. Anything, at any time, can cause a feeling of offence. This should not be prevented.

When a university administrator or group of students forbids certain ideas from being expressed they are assuming an impossible infallibility of their viewpoint. They are preventing the ability for criticism to help develop ideas and find the truth.

Indeed, they are punishing everyone else by forbidding them from hearing the alternative perspective.

Ultimately, freedom of speech is meaningless if it applies only to those with whom you agree. It works only if you defend the right of people you fundamentally disagree with to express ideas you find deeply offensive. This is an absolute necessity to a healthy intellectual environment on campus, and robust national debate.

Finally, much has been made of Ward's involvement in the controversial Safe Schools program. Given her radical political views, the Victorian government should have never placed her on an advisory committee or allowed her views to influence the program. But that disgrace is a reflection on the Victorian government.

Marxists at universities and Marxists designing government programs for children are totally different issues.

Universities are places for adults, not children. We must respect young adults enough to allow them to hear differing views and come to their own conclusions. The role of universities is to challenge students, and accordingly help them develop their capacity to reason and separate the good from the bad.

 

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