Last month, riot police were called to the University of Sydney to break up a violent protest by 40 students who were trying to stop social commentator Bettina Arndt from making a speech questioning claims by feminist activists about a rape culture at universities.
The speech had gone ahead after university authorities delayed approving the application for a venue by the organisers (the Liberal Club), then refused to waive the fee charged to student groups whose events require a security presence to keep the peace.
By seeking to forcefully block entry to the venue, the student protesters (led by the university Wom*n’s Collective) sought to enforce their previously issued demand the university deny Arndt a “platform” on campus because of her allegedly unacceptable views on sexual violence.
The violent scenes of verbal and physical abuse seen at the university are an example of the no-platforming phenomena that lies at the heart of what has been dubbed the campus free speech crisis at universities and colleges in North America.
The term “no platforming” refers to the practice of denying the right to speak (disinviting) or be heard (shouting down) to so-called controversial speakers who are accused of allegedly promoting ideas claimed to be offensive or hurtful to some students, and/or not aligning with values such as racial, gender and sexual inclusion and diversity.
Consistent with the contours of contemporary identity politics, the views of speakers denied a platform routinely are labelled and condemned as racist, patriarchal or homo or trans-phobic; hence the restrictions on freedom of thought and expression on campus amount in practice to a form of political censorship and policing of the ideological boundaries of so-called acceptable speech.
The University of Chicago has resisted this trend, upholding the values and principles of freedom of thought and expression that once were taken for granted and believed to be ingrained within higher education.
The University of Chicago’s 2012 statement on principles of free expression, written by Geoffrey R. Stone, who is the Edward H. Levi distinguished service professor of law and a former provost of the university, underscores what is at stake: “a vibrant commitment to free and open inquiry, (without which) a university ceases to be a university”.
It traces the “spirit and promise” of the university back to 1932 when university president Robert M. Hutchins defended the freedom of students to “discuss any problem that presents itself” while insisting that the “cure” for objectionable ideas “lies through open discussion rather than through inhibition”.
For this reason, Hutchins stood firm against a storm of protest after a student group at the university invited US Communist Party presidential candidate William Foster to lecture on campus. Hutchins’s words form the foundation of the section of the statement setting out the university’s fundamental commitment to the principle of free speech: “Because the university is committed to free and open inquiry in all matters, it guarantees all members of the university community the broadest possible latitude to speak, write, listen, challenge and learn. Except in so far as limitations on that freedom are necessary to the functioning of the university, the University of Chicago fully respects and supports the freedom of all students, faculty and staff to discuss any problem that presents itself, free of interference.”
With respect to the “functioning of the university”, the statement says the freedom of expression is not “absolute” with respect to “narrowly defined circumstances”, where restrictions may be imposed on illegal, threatening, harassing, defamatory or other forms of speech that may invade privacy, confidentiality or otherwise disrupt the ordinary activities of the university.
The purpose of clarifying legitimate restrictions on speech is, however, to identify what is really being targeted in terms of unacceptable restrictions on speech: intolerance towards diversity of speech and different views and opinions.
The statement then says the antidote to anti-free speech disruptive conduct, and to what some may consider bad or unacceptable speech, is for the university to defend and uphold the free speech of all — lest it ceases to be a university: “For members of the university community, as for the university itself, the proper response to ideas they find offensive, unwarranted and dangerous is not interference, obstruction, or suppression.
“It is, instead, to engage in robust counter-speech that challenges the merits of those ideas and exposes them for what they are. To this end, the university has a solemn responsibility not only to promote a lively and fearless freedom of debate and deliberation, but also to protect that freedom when others attempt to restrict it.”
There followed a 2014 report from a committee Stone chaired, and this was more targeted at the anti-free speech attitudes and behaviours that needed eradicating in practice to protect free speech on campus: “It is not the proper role of the university to attempt to shield individuals from ideas and opinions they find unwelcome, disagreeable, or even deeply offensive.
“Although the university greatly values civility, and although all members of the university community share in the responsibility for maintaining a climate of mutual respect, concerns about civility and mutual respect can never be used as a justification for closing off discussion of ideas, however offensive or disagreeable those ideas may be to some members of our community … It is for the individual members of the university community, not for the university as an institution, to make those judgments for themselves, and to act on those judgments not by seeking to suppress speech but by openly and vigorously contesting the ideas that they oppose.
“Although members of the university community are free to criticise and contest the views expressed on campus, and to criticise and contest speakers who are invited to express their views on campus, they may not obstruct or otherwise interfere with the freedom of others to express views they reject or even loathe.”
In June 2016, Chicago’s committee on university discipline for disruptive conduct was appointed to “review and make recommendations about procedures for student disciplinary matters involving disruptive conduct including interference with freedom of inquiry or debate’’.
In response to the increase in disruptive behaviour at the university, “where audience members foreclosed discourse by shouting down speakers and otherwise interfered with the opportunity of attendees to hear those speakers and appropriately contest their ideas if they so desired”, the committee’s recommendations strive to balance the legitimate right of dissent and protest as part of the life of university. Its official commitment is to ensure the university’s free speech principles are upheld.
The approach recommended has three main elements. The first signals how seriously the university takes the commitment to protecting the free speech of all by centralising within the all-university disciplinary system the disciplinary process for disruptive conduct “with the hope that doing so will provide greater consistency across cases”.
The second element moves to empower university officials to respond decisively to disruptive conduct and ensure others can speak and be heard by granting advance authority to remove disruptive individuals from events.
The third is targeted education for students and student groups to foster better understanding of the rights and responsibilities of all members of the university in relation to free speech and disruptive conduct.
Australia has much to learn. In most of our universities, 34 out of 42, existing legislative requirements to develop intellectual freedom policies have been met with largely pointless platitudes, and there has been little apparent effort made by the federal government and higher education regulators to ensure compliance.
If university administrators in Australia can’t identify the Chicago-style free speech problems, it’s difficult to see how they can be trusted to implement Chicago-style free speech solutions.
The apparent lack of institutional will within the university sector to take action to address free speech issues suggests that imploring universities to voluntarily self-regulate freedom of thought and expression is insufficient.
Our universities could be required to adopt a charter, enlivened by Chicago-style free speech obligations, as a condition of taxpayer funding. Non-compliant universities would have some of their $17 billion in grants withheld if they failed to implement best practice free speech policies to address disruptive conduct that restricted the right to freedom of thought and expression of others.
The Canadian province of Ontario offers a potential model. The Progressive Conservative government led by Doug Ford in August said universities would be required by January 1 next year to develop, implement and comply with free speech policies that met a minimum standard, or risk facing government funding cuts for failing to comply with best practice.
Their policies not only will have to include a definition of freedom of speech but they also will have to meet additional minimum standards by including principles based on the University of Chicago statement on principles of free expression.
Mandated principles included in the policy announcement are:
• Universities and colleges should be places for open discussion and free inquiry
• The (institution) should not attempt to shield students from ideas or opinions that they disagree with or find offensive
• While members of the university/college are free to criticise and contest views expressed on campus, they may not obstruct or interfere with the freedom of others to express their views
• Speech that violates the law is not allowed
Tying funding to actively protecting and promoting free speech on campus in this way would focus the mind of Australia’s university administrators on free speech problems, especially the minds of administrators who claim there is no problem and mistake legitimate protest with disruptive conduct silencing free speech.
For some, the idea of university freedom charters may raise the spectre of political interference and censorship by government. But the intention isn’t to clamp down on dissenting speech; it is to facilitate the maxim of free speech that is under threat by the rise of an anti-free speech culture in universities.
In practice, freedom charters would prevent political bias on campus by ensuring those with different political perspectives and values are free to express their views.
It’s important for universities to fulfil their traditional role and mission of promoting free and open inquiry at a time of growing toxic social and political polarisation in Western nations, including Australia. The most concerning aspect of such polarisation is the manifest intolerance of diversity of views and opinions, which is to say the failure to respect the right to freedom of speech for all citizens.
If universities abrogate their responsibility to defend freedom of thought and expression, they will help to legitimise the anti-democratic belief that robust free speech and debate of competing ideas should be restricted.
This underscores the need for freedom charters to ensure universities fulfil their purpose of modelling the kind of civic values and behaviour crucial to the health and proper functioning of liberal democracy.
In the words of the Stone report, “fostering the ability of members of the university to engage in such debate and deliberation in an effective and responsible manner is an essential part of the university’s educational mission”.
If universities don’t provide an education in democratic values in the broadest sense, where are Australians going to learn and see practised the principles of tolerance and respect for the rights and freedoms of all citizens, on which the maintenance of a democratic society depends?
This is an edited extract from a Centre for Independent Studies report, University Freedom Charters: How to Best Protect Free Speech on Australian Campuses. Jeremy Sammut is a senior research fellow at the CIS.
August 2017 : University of Pennsylvania
Law professors Amy Wax and University of San Diego’s Larry Alexander wrote an opinion piece for Philly.com in which they argued that a decline in “bourgeois values” since the 1950s had contributed to a variety of social ills. Wax and Alexander also questioned multiculturalism and the rise of the single-parent family. Wax was condemned as a racist, sexist homophobe, and it was suggested that her comments vilified and harmed minority students on campus. Student groups called for a formal policy censuring hate speech; one group, IDEAL, even claimed that rational argumentation was equivalent to hate speech and discriminatory acts. Five of Wax’s fellow Penn law professors responded with an opinion piece in The Daily Pennsylvaniaentitled “Notions of ‘Bourgeois’ Cultural Superiority are Based on Bad History”. The opinion piece linked Wax to white supremacists and focused on the racial and sex discrimination that took place in the 50s, at the exclusion of all else. After increasing pressure, law dean Ted Ruger announced that Wax would no longer be allowed to teach a mandatory first-year course.
March 2018 : Queen’s University, Canada
Psychologist Jordan Peterson, a critic of the radical Left, came to speak and was met by a group of about 200 protesters demonstrating outside the great hall, constantly shouting and banging on the windows as the talk progressed; a stained-glass window was smashed in the fracas. Some protesters breached security and ran inside while the speech was taking place. A female protester carrying a garrotte subsequently was arrested.
August 2018 : University of Western Australia
A speech by visiting American pediatrician Quentin Van Meter, a critic of transgender science, was cancelled following student protests, with administrators citing “risk management”.
September 2018 : Sydney University
Visiting speaker Bettina Arndt said: “Security guards were overwhelmed by the unruly protesters who blocked the corridor leading to the venue, preventing most of the audience from attending the event. Our students were threatened, physically jostled, some even flung against walls by the aggressive crowd prior to the riot squad being called in by security to control the protesters before my talk could go ahead.” Vice-chancellor Michael Spence said all on campus had to “observe codes of conduct” in debate but free speech was “alive and well”, with “difficult ideas” likely to be met with “protest that is passionate and loud”. Some students have complained of the university wanting to frustrate conservative events.
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