Looming Crisis in Free Speech

Looming Crisis in Free Speech

When IPA Research Fellow Matthew Lesh started his series of Free Speech on Campus audits in 2016 the standard response of university

administrators and comfortable academics was “Nothing to see here, move along please”.

Roll forward three years and the 2018 Audit’s list of relevant campus incidents was included in toto in the report of the Independent Review of Freedom of Speech in Australian Higher Education Providers, commissioned by the Coalition Government in 2018.

It is a tribute to the power of quality research and excellence in communicating said research that in the course of three years the response had progressed from a studied indifference to a formal inquiry, extensive quotation of IPA research, and a commitment to a model Code of Conduct in which free speech is a paramount value.

On page 24 Professor Augusto Zimmermann highlights the sector’s widespread antipathy to free speech and viewpoint diversity, showing why a Code (at least) is necessary. The sector’s lobbyists were quick to pick up French’s line that there was no free speech crisis, but less quick to note he also said:

… institutional rules, codes and policies covering a variety of topics which leave room for the variable exercise of administrative discretions and evaluative judgments … (are) capable of eroding the fundamental freedom of speech

Which was, after all, Matthew’s point. Also pertinent is the medical definition of a crisis: “the turning point of a disease for better or worse; especially a sudden change, usually for the better, in the course of an acute disease.” The true crisis is not yet upon us, and change may not be for the better.

In the wake of the terrible events in Christchurch there has been an intensification of the linked ideas that there is such a thing as hate speech, that hate speech inexorably leads to violence, and/or is itself a form of violence, arguments advanced in many of the submissions to French. If prohibitions on hate speech become the primary concern of campus speech codes (and societal legislation in general), then free speech is lost.

If the Coalition Government is returned it must rebut such arguments to implement even the modest recommendations of Justice French. Conversely, an ALP Government would be under intense internal pressure to increase prohibitions on hate speech, with all the chilling effect that will bring.

And if it is to be the latter form of Government, then we can also expect a swift and relentless pursuit of the industrial relations agenda developed by the ACTU and which is more or less integral to the ALP’s plans for government. This is made clear in our lead article by former Australian Public Service Commissioner, John Lloyd, who has rejoined the IPA on a part-time basis with a focus on rejuvenating the ideas and enthusiasm necessary for Australia to once again embrace industrial relations reform.

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