Campus Protests Are A Free Speech Test For Universities

Written by:
25 May 2024
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Originally Appeared In

In this article, Brianna McKee contextualises and disseminates the findings of the IPA’s research into the freedom of speech on Australian university campuses, 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.

‘This is a major win.’ These were the words of a spokesperson after the University of Melbourne caved in to the demands of hundreds of pro-Palestinian activists after a week of protests.

The protesters agreed to end their encampment, claiming the University of Melbourne had agreed to disclose all research partnerships with weapons manufacturers as demanded.

The students had commandeered a building at the university’s Parkville campus and set up a protest encampment replete with tents, banners, and flags.

‘We are committed to our demands and will continue to build and fight until the University of Melbourne not only discloses but divests in full,’ the spokesperson said.

This raises the question: Who should be doing the teaching, the university or a small angry mob of students?

Agreeing to the demands of a small minority of students with a very specific political agenda sets a terrible precedent and undermines the core purpose of a university, which is education.

At a very practical level the protest encampment disrupted education because it resulted in the closure of the Arts West building. On the first day of the protest alone, more than 6,000 students had classes cancelled.

However, at an ideological level it is even more problematic. By caving in to the demands of the protesters, the University of Melbourne has effectively taken a side on a highly contentious political issue. This has a chilling effect on free speech.

The key distinction between education and indoctrination is free speech, which encourages students to explore both sides of an argument and think critically and creatively. You cannot have education without free speech.

The protest was a test for the University of Melbourne, and one which the University’s leadership has failed miserably.

There are two lessons to be learnt from the protest at the University of Melbourne. The first is that the right to free speech is not the right to engage in disruptive conduct, to damage university property, or to trespass.

For a long time, free speech has been a precarious right on our university campuses. While vice chancellors should be upholding it without fear or favour, many only do so when it serves certain political narratives.

Numerous on-campus events have been cancelled, and student groups at some universities have been told they must pay security fees to host speakers; and all done on a selective basis of course. Never forget, Professor Peter Ridd’s sacking was based on a technicality in James Cook University’s code of conduct; because he dared to question the quality of the work of colleagues.

The current unrest reminds us that while the right to free speech allows all students to express their beliefs, it should not allow them to impose their views on others or give them the hecklers’ veto.

But this is precisely what the activists at the University of Melbourne have achieved. The protest group called for the university to sever ties with companies ‘complicit in the genocide in Gaza’ and to condemn ‘the Israeli regime’.

A university cannot be dedicated to an ideological agenda and simultaneously open to challenging perspectives. As society becomes increasingly politicised, universities must remember their role is to facilitate informed debate and discussion, not promote a political agenda.

The free speech responsibilities of a university are best outlined by the University of Chicago’s ‘Statement on Principles of Free Expression’ – a formal restatement of the values of intellectual inquiry, tolerance, and viewpoint diversity. Then university president Robert Hutchins insisted that ‘free inquiry is indispensable to the good life, that universities exist for the sake of such inquiry and without it they cease to be universities’.

Sadly, it appears many universities have lost sight of their core mission. Instead, they encourage a culture of censorship through trigger warnings and safe spaces. This has backfired rather spectacularly, with recent protests turning some campuses into spaces for overt intimidation, harassment and threats of violence – particularly against Jewish students.

When the protest at the University of Melbourne first began, the following statement was released:

‘The university is working with university security and, if required, Victoria Police to ensure the safety and security of all students and staff.’

If the university was truly committed to a safe environment conducive to learning, it would have ensured the end of the protest that day. However, instead of calling in the police, as the university said it would, the protest was allowed to drag on for weeks. This is a prime example of university leaders’ unwillingness to protect free speech.

Vice chancellors across Australia must remember that the contest of ideas is essential to the advancement of knowledge and a free society. When universities attempt to serve two masters – knowledge production and activist causes – free speech is inevitably sacrificed in the process.

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