Free speech at Australian universities: Learning from the British experience

I wrote this for an outlet, but it has not been published, so I am posting here.

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Last month, the Minister for Education announced that former Chief Justice of the High Court, Robert French, would conduct an inquiry into free speech at Australian universities. Although the scope of the inquiry seems to be wide, Tehan seems to be have been driven to launch this inquiry after concerns were raised in the press about students protesting against certain speakers at events on campus. Students protesting against speakers, such as Bettina Arndt, have been accused of shutting down debate and using the threat of public disorder to force event organisers to pay a substantial amount of money for security or to cancel the event.

At a time when Tehan and his predecessor, Simon Birmingham, were being heavily criticised for their intervention in the grant awarding process of the Australian Research Council and denying funds to 11 projects that had been recommended to receive funding, an inquiry into freedom of speech and academic freedom at Australian universities seemed a perplexing choice. For many in the higher education sector, it seemed like another culture war tactic by a government that was appealing to its conservative base.

Speaking about the inquiry, Tehan suggested that one of the outcomes of the inquiry may be an adoption of an Australian version of the Chicago Statement, an initiative by a small cluster of US universities to commit to the maintenance of freedom of speech and academic freedom. Focus on the Chicago Statement has been a recent development in the discourse on freedom of speech at universities in Australia, although the statement was first adopted by the University of Chicago in 2012. Professor Kath Gelber from the University of Queensland has argued that an adoption of the principles of the Chicago Statement by Australian universities would be ‘unlikely to be of benefit in resolving the issues with which the minister appears to be concerned’, and called the whole inquiry ‘expensive and unnecessary’.

The Chicago Statement was given significant attention in the Institute of Public Affairs’ two recent reports into free speech on campus, with the IPA’s ‘audits’ of free speech at Australian universities inspired heavily by similar reports on US and UK universities by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education and spiked! respectively. The recent interest by both the IPA and the Liberal government in the Chicago Statement could be seen as another indicator of the importing of culture war tropes from the United States and the United Kingdom, particularly around the issue of free speech on campus.

As the discourse of free speech at Australian universities seems heavily influenced from other countries, it would be wise to consider how the debate on free speech and ‘no platform’ has recently developed in the UK, where the then Universities Minister, Jo Johnson, launched an inquiry into this topic late last year.

The concern over free speech at universities has existed in Britain for a long time, with complaints about violent students shutting down freedom of speech on campus since the late 1960s. When the National Union of Students implemented a policy of ‘no platform’ for fascists and racists in 1974, many commentators and politicians viewed this a form of ‘left-wing fascism’. The ‘no platform’ policy has existed more or less in tact since the late 1970s and is routinely held up by conservatives and libertarians as an infringement upon the freedom of speech, portraying controversial speakers as hostage to the proponents of ‘identity politics’ and ‘grievance studies’.

The Thatcher government attempted to legislate against this in 1986 by mandating that universities had a duty to ensure freedom of speech, with possible disciplinary actions taken against universities which failed to comply with the legislation. However student unions were, and are, separate legal entities to the universities and the legislation did not apply to them.

Although there have been controversies over the application of the ‘no platform’ policy at British universities since the 1970s, media attention around this subject seems to have grown in recent years, possibly exacerbated by social media. Amongst the possible reasons for this is the resurgent far right across the globe and greater opposition to this, including actions to keep racists off British campuses. Another is that there has been growing opposition to the presence of trans-exclusionary feminists, such as Germaine Greer and Julie Bindel, on campuses and there has been a significant spotlight on the application of the ‘no platform’ policy by individual student unions and groups to these speakers.

At the same time, the Conservatives under David Cameron significantly revised the Prevent strategy, which was first devised after the July 2005 bombings to stop the propagation of radical and extremist ideas, including at universities. As a 2015 House of Lords Library Note shows, this was the main concern about the infringement upon freedom of speech until recently. It has been contested by a number of scholars and commentators that Prevent is much more damaging to free speech and academic inquiry than ‘no platforming’.

In October 2017, Jo Johnson called for the newly established Office for Students (OfS) to ‘champion free speech in UK universities’ and the following month, he announced that a parliamentary inquiry would be held. With over 100 pieces of written evidence submitted and over 35 people presenting oral testimony to the Joint Committee on Human Rights, the inquiry went from December 2017 to March 2018. In comparison with the discourse surrounding the Australian inquiry, there was little, if any, mention of the Chicago Statement by any those giving evidence.

The inquiry’s report found that while there had been incursions on ‘lawful free speech’, the committee ‘did not find the wholesale censorship of debate which media coverage has suggested’. The report did, however, call for greater intervention by the Charity Commission against student unions that ‘inhibit lawful free speech’ and recommended that ‘[e]ffective action should be taken against protestors’ who attempt to disrupt or shut down events. It was suggested that the OfS take over from the Charity Commission in regulating student unions and publish an annual report on the topic of free speech at universities.

In October 2018, a BBC Reality Check story, using FOI documents, showed that the number of incidents where free speech was curtailed at British universities was very small. Receiving responses from 120 of the 136 universities in the UK, the BBC reported that since 2010, there were only six occasions ‘on which universities cancelled speakers as a result of complaints’.

The outcome of the Joint Committee on Human Rights’ inquiry, as well as the figures provided by the BBC, suggest that the concern around freedom of speech on university campuses is being promoted by conservatives and libertarians amidst a wider culture war and not driven by what is actually concerning both students and academics in higher education. Although Dan Tehan has launched a similar inquiry into free speech at Australian universities, the UK experience indicates that such an inquiry is not needed and reveals a government intent on unwisely interfering in the university sector.

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