“Free speech crisis? What crisis?” Uttered in freaky unison, this frequent denial from university vice-chancellors has allowed them to resume normal programming.
That consists of VCs putting their heads in the sand rather than confronting those trying to nobble intellectual diversity on campus. It includes VCs sending long emails about how proud they are of their diversity programs, with no sense of the irony that diversity of opinion is not part of that program. And it means VCs devoting more energy to attracting foreign students than defending freedom of expression.
How much longer can university leaders ignore the accelerating rhythm to raids on free speech at Australian universities? Today, the most brazen opponents of free speech within universities are those who control student unions. Funded by other students’ money, the leaders of student unions use their union muscle to control what other students hear, read and learn. Not content with running social events, defending students’ rights or holding university management to account, a small group of students have assumed a new role as campus censor. And they imagine that if they provide a band and a BBQ, they can flex their political arm without reproach.
On Tuesday afternoon, the student association at Melbourne’s Monash University, which runs Orientation Week stalls, BBQs and other events aimed at offering students “a diverse introduction to Monash”, rejected an application from Generation Liberty to be part of the program’s activities.
Generation Liberty is a program run by the Institute of Public Affairs for young Australians, including university students, introducing them to ideas, arguments, and perspectives that they may have missed at school or university. The program is a big hit; its growth, especially over the past 12 months, points to a real hunger for knowledge not addressed by schools and universities.
In an email, events officer Michele Fredregill from the Monash Student Association told fellow Monash student Luca Rossi, a Generation Liberty co-ordinator at the university: “We have carefully reviewed your booking request and discussed it internally. Regretfully we must decline your booking application on the basis of our terms and conditions. Generation Liberty’s positions on issues such as climate change do not align with MSA’s.”
This is what happens when zealotry is threatened by facts. There is nothing in the terms and conditions to justify denying Generation Liberty’s application to be part of O-Week, which kicks off on Monday.
In any case, a student union, or any other body, cannot use “Ts & Cs” to contract out of obligations under Victoria’s Equal Opportunity Act 2010 not to discriminate against a person on the basis of their political beliefs or activities.
More sinister is MSA’s reference to not aligning with “Generation Liberty’s positions on issues such as climate change”. Neither Generation Liberty nor the IPA has a “position” on climate change. The 77-year-old research organisation and its younger offshoot, known as Gen Lib, produce research based on facts: the rest is left up to who is reading, listening or watching IPA papers, podcasts or YouTube videos.
Rossi, 19, has hit back at this MSA censorship. “As a student at Monash, it is insulting for your student association, who supposedly represents you, to basically say you can’t be trusted with your own thoughts, we have to think for you.”
The Monash law/arts student features in a series of Gen Lib YouTube videos launched late last year called What I Wasn’t Told.
At last count, What I Wasn’t Told … About Climate Change had attracted just shy of 200,000 views. The video includes links for the curious to read the research that justifies every statement.
Rossi says had Gen Lib been given the chance to join O-Week, “we would have set up a stall, handed out some stickers and badges, and if some students want to have a chat with us, then we give them the idea of freedom. And that’s it.”
What exactly are the officeholders of the student union at Monash afraid of? That some inquisitive students might grab a vegan burger from the MSA BBQ, then wander over to the Gen Lib stall and pick up a free sticker carrying the Jordan Peterson quote “In order to be able to think, you have to risk being offensive”?
Or maybe they fear the badge carrying these words from Ricky Gervais: “Just because you’re offended doesn’t mean you’re right.”
Another badge says: “Make Orwell Fiction Again.”
The only steadfast position taken by Gen Lib is a belief in open inquiry and students thinking for themselves. Clearly this belief in intellectual diversity does not align with the MSA.
Rossi, one of 16 Gen Lib campus co-ordinators at 15 Australian universities, is frustrated by the lack of transparency, too. “It’s shady,” he says, alluding to the decision by MSA president James McDonald to fob it off as an “operations issue” in answer to Rossi’s request for more details as to why the student union rejected Gen Lib’s application.
“It’s basically as little transparency as possible: ‘You’re not allowed to be here because we don’t agree with your views. Now please go away’,” says Rossi.
Alas, passing the buck about incursions into intellectual diversity happens at the highest levels about an issue that should be embedded in the DNA of every serious university.
When the student guild at the Queensland University of Technology refused Gen Lib’s application to be part of Market Week last month, vice-chancellor Margaret Sheil learned about it from the media and responded by saying QUT was committed to “a variety of contesting viewpoints”.
But when this asserted belief in contesting viewpoints has not filtered down to the student guild, it is clear that intellectual diversity is not embedded in QUT’s culture.
The dirty little secret is that student unions are baying campus censors, too. And it takes only a handful of students who control events such as Market Week at QUT and O-Week at Monash to undermine intellectual diversity for the rest of the student population. IPA research compiled last year revealed that 59 per cent of students believe they are sometimes prevented from voicing their opinions on controversial issues by other students.
For student unions, freedom of speech is a controversial issue.
It is a stark failure of logic and leadership when VCs try to dodge responsibility by saying student unions are “independent” from university administration. Student unions hold functions on campus, they are meant to represent other university students, and student unions are partly funded by compulsory student services and amenities fees paid by every student, except international ones.
Who then, if not university administrators, will hold these student censors to account?
It is not unreasonable for VCs, acting on behalf of all students, to require students within student unions or guilds to commit, in practice, to freedom of expression, open debate and intellectual diversity. That starts with O-Week activities.
Instead, there is a failure of accountability right up and down the line. Just over a week ago, new Tasmanian Liberal senator Claire Chandler questioned professor Nick Saunders, chief commissioner of the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency, the body charged with holding universities to their part of the funding deal — universities receive federal funding from taxpayers in return for delivering intellectual inquiry on campus. Saunders said the regulatory body has no authority to rein in censorship by student unions.
Chandler tells Inquirer: “One of the real policy questions that has to be answered here is: does a university’s obligation to promote free speech on campus extend to student unions … given that these unions are getting funding from universities, through services and amenities fees that are compulsory?”
Of course it should. More than that, it is time to restart the battle over compulsory fees that prop up these student censors. Whereas the Coalition government abolished compulsory student unionism in 2005, the Gillard government reintroduced them in 2010 in the form of the services and amenities fee. Ten years later, student unions are using these compulsory fees to fund their censorship of ideas and people on campus.
Chandler, who is passionate about universities fostering genuine intellectual freedom to sharpen young students’ minds, says that if the model code recommended by former High Court chief justice Robert French in his review of free speech at Australian universities doesn’t capture obligations of student unions to free speech, then this “gap” needs to be addressed.
Fill the gap, by all means, but a code will not necessarily change a culture.
I saw a similar problem up close as a member of the ABC board for five years. There was, and remains, a deeply embedded culture among journalists, producers and higher levels of the tax-funded media behemoth opposed to the intellectual diversity that is explicitly required under its charter.
Internal codes which purported to commit the ABC to their legislative charter made no difference up against that culture. Instead, even egregious cases of bias by journalists were routinely met with management claims that editorial policies are too vague, dodging any finding of a breach of the policy. Management would suggest the ABC board redraft the policies, a useless “make work” exercise, to remove areas of grey.
When another glaringly obvious episode arose of bias, often from the same journalist — recidivists were not hard to find — the board would receive the same response. It’s all rather grey so we can’t do anything. In other words: go away, our ABC culture trumps a code and even a legislative charter mandating intellectual diversity.
The same scenario will unfold across Australian universities. Even the most beautifully crafted free-speech code will count for nothing until there is meaningful cultural change.
And that will not happen until the Morrison government moves to reduce funding to universities that do not implement cultural change.
Over to Education Minister Dan Tehan to walk the talk, remembering too that academic freedom was thrown under the bus when James Cook University decided to sack professor Peter Ridd on a bogus code of conduct claim. JCU has committed to spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to defend that action in courts, rather than defend intellectual diversity.
In the meantime, we are left to ponder the state of a higher education where codes, laws, regulators and the media are needed to remind VCs and student unions about the core business of a university.