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The fight for free speech: the battle for universities

 Lest. We. Forget (Manus, Nauru, Syria, Palestine)."  – Yassmin Abdel-Magied

When you hear about slavery for 400 years – for 400 years! – that sounds like a choice. Like, you was there for 400 years and it’s all of y’all? It’s like we’re mentally in prison.”  – Kanye West

The quotes above are two different examples of people expressing free speech, the only similarities being the immense furore both created. It seems that to have an opinion can be a dangerous endeavour of late, and freedom of speech is certainly the hot topic of the moment. And to believe some, it is the most important political issue of our time.

Here in Australia the sides seem to be divided politically, left versus right. Political fights such as the same-sex marriage debate and 18C divided us ideologically. But is the next battlefield for this fight the campuses of our universities?

There is a growing concern that academic freedom of expression, and freedom of speech more broadly, is being quieted on campuses around the country. Academic freedom is enshrined in the Higher Education Support Act 2003, but do we really have it here in Australia?

Katharine Gelber, professor of politics and public policy at the University of Queensland, believes we have nothing to worry about. “In my view, there’s no evidence of a concerted effort to undermine academic freedom. Quite to the contrary, I think university managements are very sensitive to the issue of academic freedom.”

Gelber sees this argument as an extension of the wider ideological battle being waged.

“One direction from which accusations about an undermining of academic freedom are coming, is from people who try and make the argument that Australian universities are dominated by leftists who either won’t allow conservative/Liberal views to be heard in the classroom, or if they do, they either discriminate against them or punish them,” she says.

Left-wing bias in universities has long been an accusation from conservative circles.

In a recent piece for The Australian, Matthew Lesh, research fellow at the Institute of Public Affairs (IPA), said that: “Universities, particularly in the humanities and social sciences, are dominated by progressives. A US study found less than 10 per cent of academics identify as conservative, while another study found 39 per cent of US campuses have no Republicans. The situation in Australia appears to be similar.”

Gelber disagrees.

“There’s been some really good empirical research done, more in the United States than in Australia, on allegations of left wing bias in universities, which show a) students are very, very bad at guessing the apparent ideological leanings of their lecturers, and b) … the greater the gaps that they perceive between their lecturer’s ideological leanings and their own, the more likely they are to accuse the lecturer of bias,” she says.


A recent example of the free speech battle is being played out at the University of Melbourne over a new enterprise agreement, with several staff and union members unhappy at what they see as “a backwards step”.

Steve Adams, the president of the Melbourne branch of the NTEU, believes his university is trying to gain more latitude when it comes to dealing with potentially troublesome staff or issues.

“I think they’re attempting to get a bit more control over staff, and tighten the reins somewhat to guard themselves against any possible threat.”

This is part of a major contention by the union, academics and commentators that indirect pressures on university staff will elicit a so-called “chilling effect”.

Many believe that indirect actions, such as enterprise bargaining, or policies that address behaviour, hurt feelings or unwelcome comments, have an effect on free speech and will ultimately adversely affect the standing of our academic achievements.

Previously held up by many as an example of an institution with a very sound academic freedom policy, the University of Melbourne recently attempted to remove protections from the enterprise agreement in negotiations with staff.

“The clause around academic and intellectual freedom was being removed,” Adams says. “We asked about that, and they said that they believed they have a great policy and that policy is where it should remain.

“The uni does have a policy, but I should make it clear too that that policy only extends to academic staff; it doesn’t extend to professional staff, so they have no protection.

“And a policy can change at any time, with little or no input from the staff. Whereas, if we have something enshrined in something like an enterprise agreement, then there are legal protections.”

When pressed on the sudden need to remove the clause, the university didn’t appear to have too many answers, Adams says. “[There was] not a lot of rigour to their argument as to why it should no longer belong in the agreement and should only exist in policy.”

“Within the law faculty, a number of the professors there wrote to the university to express their concerns, and they were unhappy with it.”

As negotiations dragged on, including industrial action by the union and its members, Adams found what he believes to be the problem: the university’s major fear comes from external influences.

“The university have expressed to us that they could come under some sort of outside pressure, whether it be governments or students.

“They could lose money, or have the potential to lose money, if an academic says something that is not the current flavour.”

Again, Gelber sees the issue as a storm in a teacup.

“There’s actually very little evidence that the university is trying to do this, and that’s my view, that the union made it much bigger than it was.

“The university has made a suggestion not to downgrade the protection of intellectual freedom or academic freedom in the agreement, but actually quite the opposite, to make the reference in the agreement shorter, but to correlate it and link it directly to a larger governance document outside of the enterprise agreement.”

A spokesperson for the University of Melbourne says the institution makes clear in its proposed agreement that “there is no intent to change this policy nor to compromise the university’s unwavering commitment to its terms and, importantly, that exercising the right to academic freedom cannot be framed as misconduct or grounds for dismissal”.

The auditor's view

Last year the IPA conducted its 2017 Free Speech on Campus Auditof which Lesh was the lead researcher. Key findings included that of Australia’s 42 universities, 34 received its ‘Red’ rating for having policies and/or actions that “are hostile to free speech on campus”.

Only eight of the 42 currently have policies that protect intellectual freedom, the IPA found.

And only one university received a ‘Green’ rating, denoting that the institution supports free speech: the University of New England.

Furthermore, the audit names and shames “the institutions most hostile to intellectual freedom”, with the University of Sydney, Charles Sturt, James Cook and Monash catching the brunt of the IPA’s ire.

“There are some extremely concerning trends when it comes to university policies and the actions on campus when it comes to free speech,” Lesh says.

The responsibility lies at the feet of the intuitions, he adds, and again the problem of policy arises.

“I would say [universities are] creating a chilling environment for the capacity to freely express ideas – the scope of university policies that prevent things like an insulting or unwelcome comment, offensive language, or in some cases sarcasm and hurt feelings.

“In practice, if you’re going to facilitate free and open debate, occasionally offence will be caused. Occasionally feelings will be hurt. And if you try to prevent that, all you’re really doing is preventing that debate happening in the first place.”

Lesh further cites the recent furore over the Ramsay Centre and the Australian National University as a concrete example of universities playing politics and inhibiting free speech. When challenged, he did however concede – with a caveat – that perhaps this instance is not wholly black and white, left and right. Malcolm Turnbull’s well publicised interference in the issue (he called vice-chancellor Brian Schmidt to voice his concern) could be construed as an attempt at chilling free speech.

“I think that you’re right. There’s a careful balance that needs to be achieved between government and universities. Universities are public institutions, universities are publicly funded, they’re created by government legislation, and they are not private institutes in the first place.

“And while they should absolutely have the capacity to be self-governing, I think that they, at the same time, need to be accountable to public scrutiny and commentary.”

The student's view

While the debate generally concentrates on the institutions and what they are doing wrong, on the ground, views differ among the student body.

“I think the problem here is self-censorship,” says Luke Kinsella, a third-year student at ANU.

“When I do it, it just never ends well for anyone,” he adds when we talk about discussing topics that are seen as taboo on campus. According to Kinsella, these include feminism, abortion, immigration, “affirmative action [and] anything to do with transgender people”.

“These are the kinds of issues that students have a hard time talking about openly and honestly. You’re just bound to get in a really tense conversation. It’s not civil, it’s not fun, it’s a lot of shouting.

“I’m not a very conservative guy,” he says, “but I know a lot of conservative people, and they tell me, ‘I only talk to people I agree with. It’s just too taxing on my life to have a conversation with some radical left-wing student who will just call me a racist and a bigot, or ruin my reputation’.

“And they only talk to people that they agree with, which is a really big problem, because if you only talk to people you agree with, you will become more confident in your opinion and that’s just going to compound the problem further.”

Kinsella thinks his cohorts need to fight their own battles. Where they would seek help from a parent in childhood, he thinks that when they get to uni they rely on the “third party” authority of the university administration for help in conflict resolution, thus creating many of the issues and disputes we see now.

“When they were kids they would run to mum… If they get into a beef with another student, or if a student invites a speaker to campus to give a speech on a controversial subject, they aren’t going to resolve the dispute between each other, they are going to go to some authority.

“The pressure that students place on university administrations can be quite immense and persuasive.”

This battle doesn’t appear to be owned wholly by one side of politics. Both sides have examples of times when they have felt silenced. Gelber sees it as the latest political fad, albeit a worrying one.

“Twenty years ago, when I started my career and I said that my field was ‘free speech’, I had a few people look at my quizzically and say, ‘That’s interesting. Free speech isn’t really a political science topic. Nobody ever worries about it.’ And 20 years later, the reverse is the case.

“But my concern at the moment is that the people who most vociferously and most loudly claim that their free speech is under attack are the ones who also demonstrate very little understanding of the responsibilities that come with the right of free speech.”

But what about those who have no skin in the political machinations of free speech?

In the next part of our foray into the free speech debate, we consider how policies and rules surrounding free speech at universities can affect those who are on the autism spectrum.

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  1. While on the topic of affiliation, it should be noted that Luke Kinsella does often write from a decidedly-libertarian viewpoint for News Limited publications on areas of concern relating to university.
    Titles of articles include “I’m a student. Here’s how free speech died at University” and “A crisis of resilience at Australian universities”.
    That said, he often manages to annoy the Right Liberals, as much as the liberal Left 🙂

  2. The NTEU is not in favour of having ‘rights’ like freedom of speech enshrined in University policy rather than in the Enterprise Agreements. University policies can be changed overnight. EAs can’t.

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