Australian university leaders and their supporters have asserted repeatedly that there is no problem with free speech on campuses. The evidence hardly supports this.
If there were no problem, James Cook University would not have unlawfully sacked Peter Ridd for criticising his colleagues’ science about the Great Barrier Reef.
If there were no problem, students would not have attempted to shut down Bettina Arndt’s speeches at La Trobe University and the University of Sydney.
If there were no problem, the National Tertiary Education Union would not be calling for legislated protection for academic freedom.
If there were no problem, more than 60 Australian academics would not have signed up for Heterodox Academy’s pledge for greater viewpoint diversity on campus.
If there were no problem, former chief justice Robert French’s review into university freedom of speech would not have concluded that many university policies “use broad language capable of impinging on freedom of expression”.
University of NSW law dean George Williams argued on this page last week that the real threats to free speech are off-campus, in defamation and national security laws. He is right to point out other issues — but on campus individuals are not only subject to these laws, they are also ruled by hundreds of other concerning policies created under the state and federal acts that establish universities. University policies mean that free speech is more restricted on campus than in the public sphere, despite universities’ fundamental role in facilitating debate.
The Institute of Public Affairs has been assessing the state of free speech on campus since early 2016. The most recent audit late last year analyses more than 190 policies and actions at Australia’s 42 universities. It found four in five have policies, or had taken action, hostile to free speech.
The IPA was the first to point out that university policies prevent “insulting” and “unwelcome” comments, “offensive” language and, in some cases “sarcasm”. Despite Williams’s assertion, it is obvious the policies are poorly drafted, often prioritise ideological endpoints such as “social justice”, and reflect many institutions not committed to free expression.
French analyses several policy types, including student and staff misconduct, social media and the use of grounds. These policies contain undefined requirements against being “unduly offensive” and “inappropriate” or a “bully”. The vagueness of these policies is far beyond anything that exists in Australian law. Is it inappropriate to support Scott Morrison or oppose same-sex marriage? Does it count as bullying to criticise women being forced to wear the burka?
The answers depend on arbitrary judgment. In other words, the state of free expression on campus is dependent on the benevolence of university bureaucrats, who tend to have their own biases. Whatever your view on specific issues this is problematic.
French responded to these issues by proposing a free speech model code for universities that states free speech is a “paramount” right on campus — therefore hopefully overwriting other complicating policies.
Universities are waking up to the damage caused to their institutions by the lack of protection for free speech.
The University of Western Australia is the first to adopt French’s model code. It states that freedom to express ideas “is constrained neither by their perceived capacity to elicit discomfort, nor by presuppositions concerning their veracity”. This is because we do not know the validity of ideas before they’ve been debated. Truth emerges from a contest, not from everyone thinking the same. We must allow people to express all ideas, even bad ones, to ensure we can find the good ones.
University chancellors, who have a fiduciary-like responsibility to protect freedom of intellectual inquiry, also have come out in support of French’s model. The chancellors understand their institutions’ reputations and viability are under threat if they do not support free speech.
The power of ideas is once again being demonstrated. The University of Melbourne has released a new policy on free speech, albeit with weaker wording than UWA. University of Sydney vice-chancellor Michael Spence, after long saying the aggressive protest against Arndt did not show anything, also has committed to reassessing his university’s policies in the context of the French review. The Australian National University, the University of Queensland and the University of Wollongong also are moving to adopt French’s recommendations.
But it is only the beginning — the challenge is fostering a culture open to a diversity of ideas. Written policy can influence culture but it does not necessarily define practice.
The challenge for universities is that almost everyone tends to think the same way, breeding groupthink and alternative ideas being shouted down or, even more often, never voiced in the first place. French briefly acknowledges the importance of a culture of debate in the conclusion of his review.
The case for free speech fostering a diversity of ideas on campus is a work in progress.