Australian Universities Hostile To Free Speech: IPA Report

Written by:
9 December 2017
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Australian universities are hostile to free speech on campus, according to the Institute of Public Affairs’ Free Speech on Campus Audit 2017 authored by IPA research fellow Matthew Lesh.

The Audit systematically analyses over 165 policies and actions at Australia’s 42 universities, and finds that:

  • Thirty-four (81 per cent) of Australia’s 42 universities are hostile to free speech on campus.
  • Seven (17 per cent) of Australia’s 42 universities threaten free speech on campus.
  • One (2 per cent) university, the University of New England, supports free speech on campus.

“Australian universities, the precise institutions designed to facilitate the flourishing of debate, are becoming increasingly hostile free speech,” says IPA research fellow Matthew Lesh.

University policies prohibit “insulting” and “unwelcome” comments, “offensive” language, and, in some cases, “sarcasm” and hurt “feelings”. There have been violent protests against speakers, venue cancellations, students instructed to not express their viewpoint, demands for course content censorship, censure of academics, students required to pay selective security fees, and increasing use of trigger warnings.

“University policies have a chilling effect on free speech. It is impossible to freely debate ideas without potentially hurting feelings or sometimes causing offence. ”

The Audit also finds that the majority of Australian universities are failing to comply with their legal obligation, under the Higher Education Support Act 2003, to have “a policy that upholds free intellectual inquiry”. Just eight (19 per cent) universities have a standalone intellectual freedom policy.

“Australia’s universities have hundreds of policies on everything from brand guidelines to, in one case, a 1,600-word flag policy – and yet most do not have a policy to protect their fundamental purpose, free intellectual inquiry.”

The institutions most hostile to intellectual freedom are the University of Sydney, Charles Sturt University, followed by James Cook University and Monash University, according to the new Hostility Score which measures the aggregate number of problematic policies and actions at each university.

The Audit recommends that Australia’s universities abolish speech codes that limit free speech; introduce policies that protect intellectual freedom, as mandated by legislation; and commit to the University of Chicago’s sector-leading statement on free expression.

“The ability to freely explore ideas is the essential to the truth-finding mission of a university. It is the essence of university life that ideas are able to flourish, be debated, and either win, or lose, in the contest of ideas. Australia’s universities must take immediate steps to protect free speech on campus,” said Mr Lesh.

To download the media release click here

To download the report click here

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