We Measured the State of Free Speech On University Campuses

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13 October 2023
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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.

The century of spin has arrived and universities are at the forefront.

The century of spin has arrived. Today, the battle for the minds of the people is a battle for control of the narrative.

Universities have been at the forefront of this battle, and free speech on campus is a significant but overlooked casualty.

By 2016, a censorious culture was already evident on university campuses, undermining the battle of ideas. In 2023, the social and political narrative on campus is increasingly being controlled by universities that are adopting ideological positions as institutional goals.

According to the Institute of Public Affairs (IPA) Free Speech on Campus Audit 2023, over the last six years, Australian universities’ hostility towards free speech on campus has more than doubled.

It is no coincidence that the rise of the “activist university” has occurred simultaneously. Right across the tertiary sector, there has been a marked shift in focus away from education and towards ideology.

Activism and hostility towards free speech usually go hand in hand. The former tends to give rise to the latter.

This shift in the debate recalls George Orwell’s famous words, “Who controls the past, controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.”

Spinning the narrative one way will redefine, influence, and ultimately limit thought and speech.

Of Australia’s elite Group of Eight universities, seven received the lowest rating for free speech on campus due to having hostile policies.

The total hostility score across all institutions, as measured by the number and severity of university policies that are hostile to free speech, increased by 117 percent between 2016 and 2023.

Just How Controlled Is Speech?

The 2023 audit found that Western Sydney University (WSU) was the tertiary institution most hostile to free speech in Australia.

From a policy perspective, WSU epitomises the activist university perfectly. Its bureaucratic web of policies infiltrates every aspect of university life. No problem is too great, or too small.

This is a university with tentacles in both the minutiae and the overarching meta-narrative.

WSU has policies on “Indigenous Australian Education,” “Indigenous Australian Employment,” “Environmental Management,” “Gender Equality,” and “Respect and Inclusion.”

The University’s Bullying Prevention Guidelines define bullying as “name-calling,” “sarcasm,” and “teasing.”

Its Environmental Management Policy requires the university to promote an “understanding of and responsibility for environmental issues both within the University and the community.”

While Western Sydney University represents the worst of its kind from a policy perspective, most other Australian universities are not far behind.

The IPA’s 2023 audit shows across all of Australia’s 42 universities, there are now 77 policies pledging allegiance to one of three ideologies: sustainability, indigenous issues, and gender equality.

The activist university is inherently opposed to debate because it promotes only one side of an issue, attaching a value judgment to it and suggesting it is the superior position to hold. This closes debate and crushes viewpoint diversity.

Jonathan Haidt, professor of psychology at New York University, noted that a university cannot be dedicated to an ideology and simultaneously open to challenging perspectives.

Excessive policies, guidelines, and regulations contribute to this culture by censoring speech or undermining viewpoint diversity.

Some examples include the University of Wollongong’s Inclusive Language Guideline which instructs students to avoid words like “man,” “ladies,” “mothering/fathering,” and “wife.”

Central Queensland University’s protocol for Engaging and Communicating with First Nations People says, that “direct verbal confrontation” and “expressing disagreement” with Indigenous people should be avoided, in order to “preserve consensus.”

Bond University forbids posts that “can be interpreted to portray” content that is “injurious or objectionable” to the university.

Previous Attempts at Guaranteeing Free Speech Have Fallen Flat

The federal government’s attempts to strengthen protections for free speech by requiring universities to adopt a free speech policy have been relatively ineffective.

In the case of the University of New England (UNE), the new policy arguably hindered rather than helped free speech on campus.

Not only did UNE leave out key provisions in the free speech template policy provided by the government, known as the French Model Code, but it also included provisions that detract from free speech, such as the humiliation provision.

This provision was included within the French Model Code’s definition of “the duty to foster the wellbeing of staff and students” which includes “speech which a reasonable person would regard, in the circumstances, as likely to humiliate or intimidate.”

Humiliation is an inherently subjective term that can be interpreted broadly. This caveat ironically means the code restricts the very speech it was designed to protect.

While all 42 universities have managed to produce a free speech policy, only a third have adopted the six essential pro-free speech criteria identified by the IPA in the French Model Code.

The only way universities can appropriately protect free speech is to acknowledge that the only legitimate restrictions are those that apply generally to all people and institutions; namely laws relating to defamation, the incitement of violence, and racial vilification.

There is no basis for universities to limit free speech beyond this.

The bottom line is when the feelings of others, no matter how misguided or fragile, can put a stop to the dissemination of facts or genuinely held opinions, there is no meaningful right to free speech.

The postmodern person lives in a mediated world. Rapid advances in digital technology have been a game changer, making it possible to spin the narrative on a scale, and at a speed, never before seen in human history.

By influencing messaging around key political and social issues, universities are beginning to influence speech. This is the pivotal shift in the free speech debate.

Universities are not just restricting speech; they increasingly seek to control it.

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