This article was originally published in The Spectator Australia.
In this article, Brianna McKee contextualises and disseminates the findings of the IPA’s research into freedom of speech on Australian universities, conducted as part of the IPA’s Foundations of Western Civilisation Program.
The Foundations of Western Civilisation Program was established in 2011 to defend and extend Australians’ understanding of the influential, historical role of the West in establishing many of the liberties enjoyed by members of our society.
Reflecting on Jacinda Ardern’s recent attack on free speech at the United Nations, British pundit Brendan O’Neill astutely declared that ‘tyranny has had a makeover’.
O’Neill warns us that we should no longer fear the ‘gruff cop dragging you into a cell’ for saying something dangerous but be on alert for authoritarianism disguised by a broad smile, polite voice, and the tell-tale ‘caring liberal head tilt’.
So where in fact did this ‘makeover’ occur? We need look no further than our universities.
The long march of the left through our institutions is now paying off handsomely as their graduates scale the commanding heights of big business and big government.
You see, Jacinda Ardern is one of the many great success stories of this system. Her appearance on the political scene did not happen by mistake. The speech she delivered at the United Nations outlining the dangers of viewpoint diversity has been decades in the making.
Ardern, like Obama and Trudeau before her, is one of the finest products of tertiary institutions run by ‘intellectual elites’. Woke alumni conditioned to regurgitate their progressive dogma are being churned out in their thousands each year.
The Arderns of the world are made in the image of their creators – entrenched left-wing lecturers, administrators, and bureaucrats who fill universities across the Western world, particularly Australia.
These individuals have turned universities into institutions that limit free speech via a culture that is antagonistic to viewpoint diversity. This directly opposes the historical mission of higher education.
The true mission of a university is to impart knowledge and hone the mind through debate and challenge, yet groupthink and cancel culture have been rife on campus for years.
In 2019, a survey published by the Institute of Public Affairs titled The Free Speech Crisis at Australia’s Universities showed 59 per cent of students felt they were sometimes prevented from voicing their opinions on controversial issues by other students.
Even worse, 31 per cent of students said they had been made to feel uncomfortable by a university teacher for expressing their opinion. Nearly 60 per cent of students said they were more exposed to new ideas while using social media than through their studies at university.
Increasingly, universities are limiting speech by institutionalising ideology. Indigenous relations, Climate Change, and gender equality litter the policy lists of the higher education sector.
There is no better indication that free-thinking intellectuals are losing the battle than the fact that the number of policies instituted by universities has increased exponentially in recent years, jumping from 136 in 2018 to 281 in 2022. Many of these new policies directly promote social justice causes.
According to Jonathan Haidt, professor of psychology at New York University, a social justice institution cannot also protect free speech. By promoting only one side of a controversial issue, universities attach a value judgment to it and suggest it is the superior position to hold.
This closes debate and crushes viewpoint diversity. A university cannot be dedicated to an ideology and simultaneously open to challenging perspectives.
The latest tactic of university-trained elites, like Ardern, is to claim an alleged influx of ‘misinformation’ and ‘disinformation’ when thought goes against their opinion.
During her UN speech, Ardern scolded those who did not agree with her views on climate change, and claimed they were guilty of spreading ‘misinformation’ that could be used as ‘weapons of war’ to cause ‘chaos’.
So much for leaders of the free world defending free speech!
Former Chief Justice Robert French said of free speech and academic freedom, ‘A culture powerfully predisposed to the exercise of freedom of speech and academic freedom is ultimately a more effective protection than the most tightly drawn rule.’
However, Chief Justice French went on to warn, ‘A culture not so predisposed will undermine the most emphatic statement of principles.’
Unprecedented prosperity, opportunity, education, tolerance, and welfare are hallmarks of Western Civilisation and are the products of freedom of speech, thought, and association.
The fall of most great societies take place as they turn against, or fail to value, the things that made them great.
Free speech is under attack by the Jacinda Arderns of the world. The new authoritarianism is as O’Neill said, ‘well dressed’ and ‘polite’.
Each day more Jacindas are rolling off the university production line. Warm, genteel, and empathetic right up until the moment they want you silenced, cancelled, or fired from your job.
The Enlightenment mission of universities has been turned on its head. Tyranny has indeed had a makeover and every day our graduates exit university more closed and small-minded than ever before.