Home | Features | Academics, uni management skewer ‘overhyped’ campus free speech debate #CRFreeSpeech
David Baker, lecturer in Big History at Macquarie University.

Academics, uni management skewer ‘overhyped’ campus free speech debate #CRFreeSpeech

Professor Marguerite Johnson bristles at the issue of free speech on campus being termed a 'fight'. But that is indeed how Campus Review labelled it at its recent seminar, 'The Fight for Free Speech: What it Means for Universities'.

Held on Wednesday in Surry Hills, Sydney, the event attracted university scholars and management from the University of Tasmania to Curtin University, in Perth. Notwithstanding its title, the event was meant to inform and provoke meaningful discussion on the practical steps universities can take to address free speech concerns.

Nonetheless, Johnson, a classics expert at the University of Newcastle and one of the six presenters on the day, said these concerns in themselves are overblown. "‘Woke activism’ is not indicative of the student body in general. There is a level of hysteria. We all need to calm down."

UON's Professor Marguerite Johnson

A similar point was raised by presenter Professor Sharon Bell, Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Strategy and Planning) at Western Sydney University. Referring to the Institute of Public Affairs (IPA)'s 'Free Speech on Campus Audit', it "conflates university policy with a 'hostility score'," Bell said. "The language, ‘ hostility score’, contributes to the notion of crisis.

"The Audit compares a very small selection of policies with [alleged free speech-related] actions or media-reported actions. There is no attempt to document the huge range of events and debates that actually occur on campuses."

Fellow presenter, IPA Research Fellow Matthew Lesh, was on hand to rebut this. Even if university free speech concerns involve a minority, he thinks they're serious. He relayed anecdotes about an academic and a student who contacted him, distressed about universities purportedly curtailing their free speech.

"I got a call from an academic … Emilia … she put some articles on her office door, relating to an aspect of mental health; a research interest of hers. Someone complained that the articles made them feel unsafe. The university told Emilia to take them down. This eventuated in a heated argument with her head of department. She said she felt ‘gaslighted’. 'I was told that academic freedom exists, yet I was told to take down the posters,' she said.

Matthew Lesh from the IPA.

"I also spoke to Steve, a student. His lecturer, a 'satirical feminist', tells students to pursue social justice causes and post about them on social media. She frequently mocks Trump during class. Steve adapts his work to suit the lecturer's disposition, because he says those who don’t get lower marks."

WSU's Bell, on the other hand, hasn't witnessed such situations. She noted that her "students are not snowflakes"; that is, in her view, they aren't easily offended by perceived slights to their freedom of speech. A vast proportion of the students who attend WSU are from low socio-economic or migrant or refugee backgrounds, and/or are first-in-family. Never mind free speech; financially surviving throughout their degree, and getting a job afterwards, are often their sole considerations, Bell said, adding that "today, the pressure to succeed is immense because the cost of failure is much higher than it used to be".

UON's Johnson also criticised who the free speech-activist minority purport to speak for. Referring to an incident at Columbia University in the US, where a small group of students, in protesting events on campus and subsequently being investigated by the university, claimed they represented 'people of colour' and 'the working class', Johnson said: "I'm from a working class family. They don't speak for me."

Presenter Dr David Baker, Lecturer in Big History at Macquarie University, generally agreed with Johnson and Bell. "A minority of cases make appalling headlines," he said. Yet he diverged from them in that he thinks free speech on campus is a grave problem. "That I was concerned about speaking today speaks to the fact there is something very wrong with free speech in universities today," he said.

He is particularly troubled by administrative overreach in this respect, stating that some universities have banned sarcasm. This provoked audience questioning: how had universities done this? And if they had, wasn't it in the (justifiable) context of sarcasm as it relates to bullying and harassment? Baker argued that even if it appeared in this context, it remains disturbing, as it could be manipulated.

How did we get to this point? Free speech on campus arguments grew out of the civil rights movement in the US, explained Philadelphia, PA-based presenter, Marieke Beck-Coon, via Google Hangouts. Although free speech on campus remains a heated issue in the US, there, speech is generally protected by the First Amendment of their constitution, so alleged infringements of it are not as acute as they are in Australia.

Further to this point, presenter Richard Fisher, General Counsel of Sydney University, set out universities' legal obligations as they pertain to free speech, including in constitutional law. He posed the question: do universities need a 'charter of rights'?

His lofty speech was grounded by the panel discussion that concluded the seminar. A touch awkwardly for Campus Review, most speakers, Fisher included, chastised the media for inflaming the campus free speech issue.

"What is making matters more complicated is that the media are prepared to demonise students, for example, columns by Miranda Devine. That is skewing the debate. I think conservative media is playing a divisive role," Johnson said.

To this end, a USYD audience member pointed out that, in her view, Lesh's characterisation of an incident at USYD involving controversial speaker Bettina Arndt, based on parliamentary and media reports of it, was incorrect.

Though the discussion ended on a sympathetic note. The panellists pondered whether students could be protesting about their free speech being curtailed simply because they are craving the sense of community that mass gatherings can generate. They mentioned that with tutorials increasingly becoming optional, the rise of online learning, and economic pressures leading to less time being spent on campus, students are more isolated from their peers than they used to be. "In some of my tutorial classes where 35 students are enrolled, only three show up," Johnson said. "When the whole class is there for the few mandatory lessons, students always say they wish there were more of them."

USYD's Richard Fisher with Marguerite Johnson and WSU's Sharon Bell during the panel discussion.

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  1. “What is making matters more complicated is that the media are prepared to demonise students, for example, columns by Miranda Devine. That is skewing the debate. I think conservative media is playing a divisive role,” Johnson said.

    Conservative media is not doing that, it is just reporting what is really happening: universities are allowing the leftist mob to intimidate anyone who does not subscribe to their world view.

    Campus Review, please be more balanced with your reporting. Do not allow your publication to be used.

    • Hi anonymous. You’ll note that what you’re referring to is the opinion of a particular speaker. You are welcome to critique her assertion, however, please don’t conflate this with our reporting. Thanks.

    • Hi Loren,

      I think one only has to look at your two most recent headlines to get a feel of things:

      “Contrived, pointless, and a total waste of taxpayer money: groups respond to freedom of speech review”
      “Academics, uni management skewer overhyped campus free speech debate”

      Articles airing the side of those shouted down or threatened by mob violence are few and far between.

      • Hi anonymous. I think you’re being selective. If you looked at our site, you’d see there’s an extensive range of free speech articles, covering both sides. Anyways, you clearly have an agenda so I’ll leave it at that.

  2. Dear Loren Smith, Could I possibly ask whether the contributions and panel discussions at this event were recorded? If they were, how can they be accessed? Many thanks, Miriam Bankovsky (Senior Lecturer and ARC DECRA fellow at La Trobe University).

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