Academics are fighting a rear-guard action as the push to enshrine free speech on campus gathers pace, writes IPA Adjunct Fellow Matthew Lesh.
An indescribable anxiety flushes through your body in the split second of realising you are the punching bag. That was my experience in late 2019 when I trekked up to the Australian National University. I was invited to speak at a special summit on academic freedom, hosted by former foreign minister Gareth Evans and Nobel Prize winner Brian Schmidt; the ANU’s Chancellor and Vice-Chancellor, respectively. Little did I know the opening keynote address would be an ‘examination’ of my work: the IPA’s Free Speech on Campus Audit. It was delivered by Glyn Davis, the recently retired vice-chancellor of my alma mater, the University of Melbourne. Davis called my claims about campus censorship a form of “special pleading” lacking in evidence. He tried to poke holes in my methodology.
During the dinner after the keynote I introduced myself as the summit’s ‘villain’, and noted any deficiencies in my research abilities ultimately would be the responsibility of the Vice-Chancellor of my university at the time. This would not be the first time—or the last—that the IPA’s concerns about campus free speech were dismissed by the sector. Universities Australia, their national representative body, could easily dismiss the issue in late 2018 with a sympathetic Shorten Labor Government on the horizon. But when the Coalition was re-elected and continued to hold the universities’ feet to the fire, they had little choice but to concede.
The censorship kept mounting up, raising public concern. High-profile reviews would echo concerns about university policies first raised by the IPA. Ultimately the legislation, along with dozens of university policies, would be updated to strengthen free expression protections. Meanwhile, Peter Ridd would appear before our highest court in a landmark case about academic freedom. The IPA’s recent success, however, is just the beginning in a broader battle of ideas.
This was all ahead of us when the IPA published our first analysis of university actions and policies in relation to free expression five years ago. The Free Speech on Campus Audit 2016 identified widespread censorious speech codes and highlighted specific cases of censorship. This included university policies preventing ‘insulting’ and ‘unwelcome’ comments, ‘offensive’ language and, in some cases, ‘sarcasm’.
The IPA highlighted specific cases of injustice.
Over the coming years, we identified how university administrators and student activists were creating a hostile environment for free speech by cancelling speakers, censoring students and academics, and using ‘star chamber’ disciplinary proceedings. We called for urgent university policy and legislative reform to protect open debate—to ensure universities could continue to function as places of learning and research.
Audit updates in 2017 and 2018 identified a worsening crisis, receiving front-page coverage and supportive editorials in The Australian. The Audits were also referred to hundreds of times across newspapers, broadcast media, blog posts, speeches, books and academic articles. It became the go-to reference point on the topic. The Parliamentary Library stated that the “best known recent work focusing on free speech on campus is from the Institute for Public Affairs (IPA)”. Glyn Davis called it the “most widely quoted evidence for suppression of free speech on campus”.
The IPA also highlighted specific cases of injustice and undertook direct activities with students on campus through the IPA’s Generation Liberty student outreach program. Most significantly, the IPA arranged support for Dr Peter Ridd after his sacking by James Cook University in 2018. The IPA ensured Ridd’s case garnered public attention, which benefitted the crowdfunding campaign that ultimately raised more than $1.5 million for legal fees. The IPA remained tenaciously consistent. We also backed self-identifying Marxist Roz Ward, far-left academic Tim Anderson, and left-wing student, Drew Pavlou. It is essential to protect all constrained voices, not just ones a certain side supports.
We also pushed back against the Tertiary Education Quality Standards Agency’s (TEQSA)’s draft guidance note on diversity and equity. The guidance would have mandated universities to promote “inclusive language”, “social justice”, and “equity in outcomes”. The final text removed the problematic sections, instead stating that diversity and equity should “not contravene a provider’s [university’s] obligation to support free intellectual inquiry”.
In 2018, the Government commissioned the French review. The review’s recommendations vindicated the IPA’s research, finding that a large number of university rules and policies infringe on freedom of expression: “Many of the higher education rules and policies mentioned in the (IPA’s) Report use broad language capable of impinging on freedom of expression.”
French denied the existence of a free speech ‘crisis’ but acknowledged there is a substantial problem. He recommended universities strengthen policies by adopting a model code stating that freedom of expression is a ‘paramount’ value for a university. That is, a value that must come before ensuring a collegiate environment or not offending people on the basis of a characteristic.
These recommendations were begrudgingly accepted by Universities Australia, which had earlier claimed there was no problem whatsoever. However, a subsequent review, by former vice-chancellor Professor Sally Walker in 2020, found few universities were complying with the French review. Walker concluded that just nine of 42 universities were fully compliant—creating further impetus for universities to improve their policies and the Government to take legislative action.
In March 2021, the Government passed the Higher Education Support Amendment (Freedom of Speech) Act 2021, which includes French’s expansive definition of academic freedom and requires every Australian university to have a policy that protects freedom of speech that aligns with French’s model code.
Despite all this success, presuming the war is all over would be naive. A recent book from two senior academics on academic freedom and free speech highlights the ideological battle we now face. Open Minds: Academic Freedom and Freedom of Speech in Australia (La Trobe University Press, 2021) goes out of its way to reject the IPA’s critique. The book is a joint effort from Carolyn Evans, the vice-chancellor of Griffith University and former dean of the Melbourne Law School (MLS), and Adrienne Stone, who holds a chair at Melbourne Law School (MLS). Both have a suitably illustrious list of fellowships and professorships. They were joined by Jade Roberts, a researcher at MLS.
Evans and Stone credit research by the IPA with catalysing a public debate about an increasingly censorious culture on university campuses. The IPA’s efforts were ‘influential’, they bemoan. The first chapter discusses historical conflicts around student radicals and left-wing professors. Pacifists, anti-conscriptionists, and communists variously faced censorship throughout the 20th century.
In 1932, unpatriotic members of Melbourne University’s Labor Club were thrown into a lake and not allowed to leave until they sung the national anthem (God Save the King). In the 1950s, ASIO had lists of subversive individuals and discouraged hiring communists (these days it is practically mandatory). This discussion highlights the overarching tendency for minority voices to be attacked—historically left-wing students and academics, and contemptuously conservative and libertarian voices.
However, Evans and Stone use this analysis to highlight how free speech infringements are largely historic and something that happens to people on the left side of politics—rather than an issue today that impacts students and academics from across the political spectrum, and in particular non-left students and academics. They assert the number one threat faced by universities relates to external funding sources, not pressure brought by students or administrators. This is despite an IPA-commissioned poll in 2019 finding 59 per cent of Australian students say they have been prevented by other students from voicing an opinion on a controversial issue.
In the book the authors sympathise with historical cases of left-wing censorship, while downplaying and refusing to take a side on Peter Ridd. They first acknowledged how “the requirement for ‘civility’ or ‘collegiality’ risks turning a common (if rather unpleasant) form of academic dispute into an occasion for supressing academic freedom”. But then go on to say, “On the other hand, if criticism of colleagues or their research veers into bullying or intimidation it should not be protected.” Which side Ridd falls onto is not stated. This treatment reveals a worryingly partisan, tribal and un-academic approach to campus free speech.
Contradictorily, Evans and Stone appear to believe modern censorship against conservative and libertarian voices is practically non-existent, while also often justified. This stems from their distinction between ‘academic freedom’ and ‘freedom of expression’.
The former—protecting research, teaching and learning—is central. The latter—broader speech on campus—should be limited for academic purposes (“academic values first”) or for the functioning of a university. This means censoring speech that could “cause serious emotional harm”, “obviously untrue and even dangerous ideas”, and speech which “denigrate[s] a group within the university”.
Few would disagree speech at universities must comply with the law—even if at times some of that law is unjust. (Though it is worth highlighting the law does have special exemptions for academic purposes, such as the Racial Discrimination Act’s carve out for “academic, scientific or other purposes that are genuinely in the public interest”.) Nor would it be reasonable to expect universities to not limit speech that is obstructive to the normal functioning of a university, such as loud protests outside an examination hall.
Beyond these limited and specific circumstances, however, universities should be among the freest places in society to express an opinion. There should be no efforts to shield students from speech they find offensive, discomforting, or downright emotionally distressing. Universities should not be in the business of protecting their academics or staff from challenge.
On the other hand, Evans and Stone effectively suggest that views the authors are sympathetic to, those they believe are ‘academic’, should be protected, while more controversial views outside of the academic mainstream can legitimately be censored. They give the example of “climate change denial” to suggest that speech, which they think is false and undermines the “integrity and reputation of universities”, should be banned. Free speech for my trendy ideas, but not for anyone too controversial. It’s difficult to see how an academic community, which depends on proving and disproving hypotheses, can function on this basis.
Evans and Stone also believe it is reasonable for universities “to protect their communities from emotional and psychological harm caused by the most serious forms of hate speech”. This is because hateful speech propagates inequality and undermines the ability of targeted groups to exercise their speech rights. Therefore, some censorship is righteous.
This opens a can of worms. Practically any speech on controversial modern issues could, according to some, cause serious emotional and psychological harm. For example, the assertion that speech which is critical of transgender rights is ‘violence’ is not uncommon.
The key source of modern censorship is the call not to be offended.
So Evans and Stone not only refuse to acknowledge the key source of modern censorship— the call not to be offended—they actively support it. Just say that a certain speaker will cause you serious “emotional and psychological harm”, and bingo, they are cancelled. This completely undermines the truth-seeking purpose of a university. It also condescendingly assumes some groups are too weak to hear different viewpoints.
The most persuasive discussion relates to the challenges universities are faced by accepting international students and research partners and governments. They are right to state that universities should capitalise on these opportunities, while not forgetting the university’s fundamental purpose. There are also questions about the excessive reliance of universities on international students, particularly from mainland China.
Naturally, they take special aim at the Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation. They also fail to tackle the key contradiction at the heart of a modern university: how independent can they really be when the institution is largely funded by the state? Some level of democratic oversight is inevitable while using taxpayer funds.
Evans and Stone highlight the challenge we now face. The legislation and policies may now be updated. The next Peter Ridd may be a tad luckier. There is a clearer institutional mandate to protect free expression. This can go some way to reverse the ‘chilling effect’ felt by many students and academics who express unorthodox views. However, policies alone cannot change culture or make academics and students more tolerant of different perspectives.
Cancel culture is famously difficult to cancel. To continue highlighting the cases of censorship and making a positive case for a diversity of views on campus will now be necessary.
Freedom of speech is the first and foremost freedom. Being able to speak and work freely so as to investigate good and bad ideas is the basis of our entire liberal, free, and democratic society.
The IPA’s campus free speech work has sought to guard Australia’s liberal culture against threats—ensuring the next generation are imbued with an appreciation of free expression, and are able to hear a variety of perspectives.
This fight may be just beginning.