Uni free speech charters must be more than mere words

Jeremy Sammut

20 September 2018 | The Daily Telegraph

Federal education minister Dan Tehan has proposed that Australian universities be required to adopt new codes to protect freedom of thought and expression.

This is in response to the growing campus activism against free expression; typified by last week’s disgraceful scenes at Sydney University, when left-wing students violently tried to stop social commentator Bettina Arndt from making a speech questioning the idea of a ‘rape culture’ at universities.

Tehan’s proposal would be a timely initiative to help our universities avoid the kind of full-blown free speech crisis occurring in universities in North America.

But to prove effective and uphold the principles of rational inquiry and civil debate that all universities should stand for, university freedom codes or charters cannot be toothless tigers—all platitudes and no action.

Universities that don’t defend freedom of thought and expression should have some of their $17 billion in public funding cut by the federal government, as is starting to happen in other countries.

We simply cannot rely on universities to defend free speech when the anti-free speech culture in contemporary universities is so deeply mired in political correctness and identity politics.

At Sydney university, more than 100 academics have opposed working with the Ramsay Foundation to teach students about the history of Western civilisation because this would supposedly violate the university’s commitment to “diversity and inclusion.”

This is the same rationale offered at American universities to justify ‘no platforming’ certain speakers.

So-called controversial thinkers and writers are denied the right to speak on campus because they are accused of allegedly promoting racist, patriarchial or homo- or trans-phobic ideas claimed as ‘offensive’ or ‘hurtful’ to some students.

The dire implications of this for free speech prompted the University of Chicago to conduct a special inquiry into freedom thought and expression in 2015.

The resultant Stone Committee Report—which Tehan’s university freedom charters should take a leaf from—rightly argued that concerns about students being exposed to ideas they disagree with or deem offensive should never justify shutting down free and open inquiry, because universities should guarantee “the broadest possible latitude to speak, write, listen, challenge, and learn.”

Tehan should also look closely at the new approach to defending free speech on campus in the Canadian province of Ontario, which requires universities to develop free speech policies as a condition of taxpayer-funding.

More importantly, the Ontario government’s commitment to promoting free speech on campus not only has teeth, but also practical bite: universities that do not develop, implement, and comply with free speech policies will face funding cuts.

It might be pitiful to think that universities need to sign up to a freedom charter—let alone be threatened with financial penalties—to defend freedom of thought and expression. And this is not to advocate that government uses public funds to censor universities.  Instead it is about universities fulfilling their traditional obligations as institutions of intellectual freedom.

But if we are going to address the anti-free speech culture on campuses, the government—on behalf of all citizens and all taxpayers—needs to hold universities to account to protect the free speech of all.

Dr Jeremy Sammut is a Senior Research Fellow and Director of the Culture, Prosperity and Civil Society Program at The Centre for Independent Studies.

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