DFAT boss gives brilliant speech on values and free speech at Australian universities  

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10 October 2017
DFAT boss gives brilliant speech on values and free speech at Australian universities   - Featured image

Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade head Frances Adamson, in a courageous speech to the Chinese government-funded Confucius Institute at the University of Adelaide, has urged students against the call for censorship of challenging ideas.

‘No doubt there will be times when you encounter things which to you are unusual, unsettling or perhaps seem plain wrong,’ Adamson said in comments directed at international students. ‘If you aren’t encountering strange and challenging things you aren’t getting out enough.’

Adamson calls for students to ‘respectfully engage’ with ideas they disagree with. ‘The silencing of anyone in our society from students to lecturers to politicians is an affront to our values,’ she correctly identifies.

Adamson’s speech comes following four known occasions this year that Chinese students have demanded lectures align materials more closely with Chinese policy. The University of Sydney apologised after a lecturer presented a map with borders that did not align with the Chinese government line on disputes with India and Bhutan. In another case, Monash withdrew a textbook after a quiz question caused controversy.

As I wrote for ABC Online last week, ‘that some students find an idea offensive is not a good enough reason for it to be silenced. Education requires hearing a range of viewpoints’. I continued:

Universities must show international and domestic students alike that they are most welcome to study on our campuses. However, all students must respect fundamental Australian values and appreciate the core feature of a liberal education system which challenges, not coddles, students.

Adamson’s comments could also be directed at Australia’s domestic students and university administrators, who are increasingly pursuing censorship of ideas through speech codes and various actions, as IPA research has found.

The IPA’s Free Speech on Campus Audit 2016 found eight-in-ten Australian universities have policies or have taken action that unambiguously threatens free speech. This includes speech codes that prevent offence on the basis of national origin – which, in practice, provides institutional backing for those seeking censorship.

If free expression is a core Australian value, as Adamson correctly identifies, our universities must go much further to protect it from current attacks.

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