Left Speechless

30 May 2019
Left Speechless - Featured image

This article by Augusto Zimmermann first appeared in the April 2019 edition of the IPA Review.

When in late 2018 the Federal Minister for Education, Dan Tehan, commissioned Robert French to undertake an inquiry into “Freedom of Speech in Australian Higher Education Providers” it was a welcome if belated acknowledgement of the very real issues on Australian campuses—issues which are of particular concern to academics and students not disposed to conform to the dominant cultural left ethos of Australian universities.

Robert French was the Chief Justice of Australia (2008-2017) and is currently the Chancellor of the University of Western Australia (UWA), and so as you would expect his report—which was released just as this article was going to press—is thoughtful and thorough, but the review was limited in its terms of reference and the consultation process was conducted very much among insiders.

The recommendation that Universities adopt a Code of Conduct to protect academic freedom and free speech has merit, though given the scale of the issues it is what we might call ‘a good start’. This article is mainly concerned with the issues that gave rise to the review, and supports the view that a Code of Conduct could only be effective if the university in question is actually committed to free speech for academics, students and visiting speakers. Much more fundamental change is required.

It was French himself who warned in a 2018 speech that universities face the risk of legislative intervention unless they provide a robust defence of free speech on campus. He remarked that campus speech codes could be subject to the implied freedom of political communication previously articulated by the High Court:

To the extent that universities, operating under the authority of acts of parliament which create them, make legal rules affecting freedom of speech, those rules would have to comply with the implied freedom

He also argued that the actions of university executives might also be subject to the implied freedom. This argument accords with that made by Joshua Forrester, Lorraine Finlay, and myself in a 2018 paper published in the UWA Law Review, Finding the Streams’ True Sources: The Implied Freedom of Political Communication and Executive Power.

Australian universities are legally obliged to protect freedom of speech and freedom of expression. The governing legislation requires that universities have “a policy that upholds free intellectual inquiry in relation to learning, teaching and research”.

Furthermore, the sector’s regulator, the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency (TEQSA), said in its 2017 Diversity and Equity guidance note “Measures taken to accommodate diversity should not contravene the pursuit of intellectual inquiry, and more generally, freedom of expression”.

Unfortunately one can provide numerous examples of the tyranny of political correctness that has spread across Australian campuses. The IPA’s Free Speech on Campus Audit 2018 found 34 out of our 42 universities adopt policies that substantially limit freedom of speech.

The report’s author, Matthew Lesh, said such a failure to protect free speech is:

seriously imperilling the discovery of truth, the core purpose of Australia’s universities; student development, which requires debate and challenge; and the future of Australian society, which depends on a tolerance and openness to debate


The climate on campus is well illustrated by the decision of the Australian National University (ANU) to pull out of negotiations with the Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation, over funding for a scholarship and teaching program in the study of Western Civilisation. Vice-chancellor Brian Schmidt announced the ANU had withdrawn from negotiations on the grounds of academic freedom, despite no attempts to have such freedom limited by the Ramsay Centre.

By deciding to pull out of a program favourable to Western Civilisation, ANU administrators demonstrated they are not committed to support academic projects that appreciate values that make Australia so unique and special, including academic freedom. The situation becomes more bizarre when the ANU already has a centre to study Islamic and Arab cultures and also a China Institute.

The problem is not restricted to the ANU. When the University of Sydney commissioned a senior academic to prepare a draft of a potential course in Western Civilisation to be offered in partnership with the Ramsay Centre, such a proposal sparked a ‘backlash’ and Sydney academics were reported to have ‘reacted furiously to the news’. More than 100 such academics signed an open letter to Sydney University vice chancellor Michael Spence stating their opposition to the university entering into any academic arrangement with the Ramsay Centre. Negotiations stalled.


A further example comes from April 2015, when UWA announced securing $4 million in Federal Government funding to establish an ‘Australian Consensus Centre’ to undertake “detailed economic cost-benefit analysis into many of Australia’s, and the world’s biggest challenges.” The university initially embraced the opportunity, with then Vice-Chancellor Professor Paul Johnson stating:

The Centre is unique in that it’s to deliver robust, evidence-based knowledge and advice to the Australian Government on potential policy reforms and other interventions that will deliver the smartest, most cost-effective solutions in areas ranging from poverty, social justice and food sustainability.

Danish environmentalist Bjørn Lomborg was to head the Centre. Lomborg endorses what he calls the science of human-induced climate change, but is labelled a controversial figure because he also has argued that the risks of climate change have been overstated, and it is more important to tackle problems such as malaria, extreme poverty, and pollution. Accordingly, UWA Academic Staff Association vice president Professor Stuart Bunt said the project could not be tolerated because “Lomborg would be using the name of the university, to put what are largely political opinions, rather than evidence-based statements, using the university’s name”.

To his credit the Vice-Chancellor reminded us that Dr Lomborg is a “leading environmental scientist” perfectly qualified for the academic position:

I believe that a man who has worked with many Nobel Laureate economists, has been named one of Time magazine’s most influential people, and has published with Cambridge University Press, meets the criteria of being made an Adjunct Professor—an honorary position that carries no salary…

However, he was also the bearer of bad news:

I have formed the view that the events of the past weeks places the Centre in an untenable position as it lacks the support needed across the University and the broader academic community to meet its contractual obligations … The work of the Australia Consensus Centre is important to Australia’s future by engaging in important discuss and economic analysis about how we ensure future generations are better off than those that came before them. Unfortunately, that work cannot happen here.


There is growing evidence of censorship on campuses, where speakers’ engagements are often cancelled and/or violently protested because certain groups disagree with their ideas. On 17 August 2018, for example, a lecture by the US academic paediatrician, Dr Quentin Van Meter, was cancelled by UWA after students from the Student Guild launched a petition calling for the event’s cancellation.

Dr Van Meter is clinical associate professor of Paediatrics at both the Emory University and Morehouse Schools of Medicine and president of the American College of Paediatricians (ACP), which is known for its opposition to gender reassignment of children. Dr Van Meter has highlighted problems with the “proven science” relied upon by transgender advocacy groups.

Student Guild president, Megan Lee, welcomed the cancellation of this event organised by the Australian Family Association. “We want to make clear to the university that students in the Student Guild do not believe there is a place for hate speech on campus … a university is not an appropriate place for those discussions,” she said.

The official basis for denial of venue is that the organisers were unable to guarantee a risk-free environment for attendees, with the University Campus Management team at the last minute demanding a ‘robust event management plan’ on the grounds that the risk surrounding the event had been ‘elevated to a higher level’. According to the Pro Vice Chancellor at Murdoch University from 1999 to 2001, Dr Kevin Woods, this was simply a convenient excuse:

It is becoming more prevalent in our society that anyone who expresses an opinion opposed to the ‘progressive’ left is to be demonised as a person espousing hate speech, rather than being treated as a person expressing their right to free speech.

Dr Bettina Arndt is a sex therapist, journalist and clinical psychologist. In 2018 she went on a national tour with the aim of debunking unsubstantiated claims that Australia’s universities are hotbeds of sexual assault. She was supposed to speak at the University of Sydney on 11 September last year, but became the subject of a campaign of “mounting harassment, official delay, and obstruction”. First, the university administrators stalled for 12 days the organiser’s application for a venue, claiming it was still being processed. When it was finally decided the talk could go ahead, the administrators also announced Liberal Club students would be charged for security. Vice-Chancellor Michael Spence presented those students a bill of nearly $500, plus the room hire. The Liberal Club president Jack O’Brien wrote to Dr Spence on 24 August, asking for the university to waive security costs as a sign of support for controversial discussions and ultimately the event was allowed to go ahead without the students paying for security.

Dr Arndt was due to speak to about 90 people, but only a few of them managed to get past the crowd. Other were stuck outside trying to get through when up to 40 student protesters blocked the corridor leading to the talk. The riot squad was called and a video records students intimidating people and blocking the corridor.


As an academic myself, I have noted with great despair the sort of pseudo-intellectualism that has made its way into Australia’s universities. Of course, the academic elite will vehemently deny there is any such problem on our campuses. And yet, suppression of free speech is a very real thing and the silencing of minority opinion has been systematic in faculty recruitment and academic promotion across most Australian universities.

Indeed, any deviation from the established norms may result not only in personal abuse but also in outcomes such as formal or informal sanctions, administrative reproach, promotion refusal, denial of academic tenure, being sentenced to sensitivity training, and serious difficulty finding an academic job.

In today’s Australia, questions of research quality, academic excellence, critical thinking, and intellectual distinction appear to be considerably out of style. The nation’s academic elite openly support speech codes and over-regulation of student life. Indeed, most of our universities have become rather oppressive spaces ruled by officious bureaucrats enforcing their own leftist dictates upon everybody else, academics included.

I do not know any ‘conservative’ academic who is against free speech. And yet, I know very well that the silencing of conservative opinion has been systematic on our campuses.

In my opinion, there is little doubt the majority of these university administrators are failing to properly exercise their legal (and constitutional) obligation to protect freedom of speech on our campuses.

Augusto Zimmermann LLB is Professor of Law at Sheridan College in Perth, WA, and Professor of Law (Adjunct) at the University of Notre Dame Australia, Sydney campus.
The UWA Law Review article quoted, Vol43 (2), 188-254, can be found at http://tinyurl.com/jflfaz
Main photo, P.24, shows Berkeley students campaigning for free speech on campus, 1964
Photo: Chris Kjobech / Collection of the Oakland Museum of
California, The Oakland Tribune Collection

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