The Institute of Public Affairs (IPA) has announced that it will soon be publishing a report into free speech at Australian universities, alleging that the recent government inquiry by former Chief Justice Robert French ‘never actually asked students’ about their experiences. While the report has yet to be released and the IPA’s findings (as well as their research methodology) cannot be scrutinized, we can discuss the IPA’s campaign against the ‘free speech crisis’ on Australian university campuses within an international context, where similar organisations are taking up the same fight.
In an era of a resurgent far right across the globe, conservatives and libertarians in the United States, Canada, Australia and Britain have expressed alarm about the supposed end of freedom of speech on university campuses. At this moment, the concept of free speech has been weaponised by the right in its various guises as a smokescreen to air offensiveness and to promulgate far right ideas about race, sexuality and gender. As Will Davies wrote in his book Nervous States: How Feeling Took Over The World:
the very notion of ‘free speech’ has become a trap. Neo-fascist or alt-right movements now use it to attack alleged ‘political correctness’, using the principle of free expression to push hateful and threatening messages towards minority groups… Whereas intellectual freedom was once advanced in Europe as the right to publish texts that were critical of the establishment, it has now become tied up with spurious arguments surrounding the ‘right to offend’.
Rather than being the radical students of the 1960s and 1970s, today’s students are seen as ‘snowflakes’ – naïve and politically correct students that are unable to engage with ‘challenging’ ideas. In her 2016 book, I Find That Offensive, Claire Fox (contributor to controversialist website Spiked and now MEP for the Brexit Party) suggests that a mixture of identity politics and risk aversion embraced by today’s students threaten the ‘liberal values of tolerance and resilience’, supposedly menacing the prospect of free speech on campus. And this is a concept that has been readily accepted by many in the mainstream media and the political sphere, from the centre left to hard right, around the world. Using the triumvirate of ‘no platforming’, ‘safe spaces’ and ‘trigger warnings’, students are purportedly shutting down any speech that they find unfavourable. For those up in arms about the supposed lack of free speech at universities, students are at the same time both fragile, risk averse ‘snowflakes’ and heavy-handed McCarthy-like warriors, enabled by ‘politically correct’ academics and the codes of conduct put in place by risk averse university administrations. Students are to be both pitied and feared in a higher education environment allegedly hostile to free thought.
In the last decade, this has become a major campaign issue for conservatives and libertarians across the English-speaking world. In the United States, the Foundation of Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) began putting a ‘spotlight’ on free speech at universities and colleges in 2006, while the Canadian group, the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms (JCCF), started the Campus Freedom Index in 2011. Both organisations have published annual reports on this ever since, using ranking systems to indicate the university campuses where free speech was most protected and most infringed. The traffic light ranking system used by FIRE of red, amber and green has been replicated in other recent ranking reports by UK website Spiked and the IPA.
Spiked is a website that grew out of the journal Living Marxism, which was once linked to the defunct Revolutionary Communist Party, a political journey that started with an ultra-left Trotskyist group that ended up as a vehicle for contrarian libertarianism. Despite its problematic history, many of the main players at Spiked, such as Brendan O’Neill, Tom Slater, Mick Hume and Frank Furedi, have been embraced by the right-wing media in Australia, as well as in Britain and North America. In 2014, Spiked launched the Down With Campus Censorship campaign, which called on students ‘to say no to No Platform, to stuff the Safe Spaces, and to reclaim the university as a space on unfettered debate and the pursuit of knowledge.’ The following year, the website launched the Free Speech University Rankings (FSUR), which attempted to rank universities on their commitment to free speech. These were published annually over the next four years, with the last report being published in February 2018.
Those at Spiked have portrayed the use of ‘no platform’, codes of conduct and equal opportunities policies as contributing to a crisis in the university system, and have equally depicted themselves as the defenders of free speech against the tsunami of political correctness. Despite heavy criticisms of Spiked and their research methods, the FSUR has certainly been influential in generating this belief in a free speech crisis in higher education in the UK. Since first being released in 2015, many in the British media have reported uncritically on the rankings each year, adding to a concern in recent years that ‘no platforming’ and safe spaces were inhibiting free speech on campus. They have also been invited by Parliament to speak to an inquiry on the issue.
The IPA have published three similar reports ‘auditing’ free speech on Australian campuses since 2016, explicitly influenced by these overseas organisations. Its 2018 report claimed that ‘Australian universities are failing to protect free speech on campus’, with 83 per cent of universities found to have ‘policies and actions that are hostile to free speech on campus’ (in the ‘red’ category). For comparison, Spiked’s FSUR claimed that 54 per cent of UK universities fit into the same ‘red’ category in 2018.
This transnational campaign for increased freedom of speech at universities and colleges has led to right-wing governments both here and overseas intervening in a number of ways. In March 2019, Donald Trump signed an executive order linking funding for higher education bodies with the protection of free speech on campus, declaring, ‘If a college or university does not allow you to speak, we will not give them money. It’s that simple.’ The move was celebrated by sections of the conservative and libertarian right, as well as by FIRE. However critics have argued that the executive order is vague and already covered in many areas by existing arrangements. At the same time in Canada, Ontario Premier Doug Ford has created laws to twin funding for universities with a duty to uphold free speech.
In Britain, the former Universities Minister Jo Johnson (also brother to Boris) launched a parliamentary inquiry into free speech at universities, despite the fact that legislation protecting freedom of speech on campus had been established by Margaret Thatcher in 1986. After more than 100 written submissions and over 35 people presenting oral testimony to the inquiry, run by the Joint Committee on Human Rights, the final report found that while there had been some incursions on ‘lawful free speech’, the Joint Committee asserted that it ‘did not find the wholesale censorship of debate which media coverage has suggested’. This was confirmed by a BBC investigation a few months later.
In Australia, the Morrison government also held an inquiry into free speech at Australian universities in late 2018, after some media outlets reported that students were involved in ‘no platforming’ on various campuses. Similar to what happened in Britain, the Australian inquiry found that there were few actual incidents of free speech being hindered on campus, remarking that recent incidents reported in the press ‘do not establish a systematic pattern of action by higher education providers or student representative bodies, adverse to freedom of speech or intellectual inquiry in the higher education sector’. However it argued that ‘even a limited number of incidents… may have an adverse impact on public perception of the higher education sector which can feed into the political sphere’, which seems more of a condemnation of how the media has stoked this moral panic, rather than a criticism of the actions of students and universities. Nevertheless the French report still recommended a code of conduct for universities to commit to upholding free speech, which the re-elected Liberal government has since sought to legislate. Although Nick Reimer has recently suggested in Overland that ‘as commentators endorse speech codes as a way to remove an imaginary left-wing threat to free expression on campus, the main effect is to reinforce the “extreme centre” in Australian politics.’
Last week the Education Minister Dan Tehan announced that a future survey of university students would include questions about freedom of speech, suggesting at the National Press Club that ‘some students and staff at universities are self-censoring out of fear they’ll be shouted down or condemned for expressing sincerely held views and beliefs, or for challenging widely accepted ideas’. This is the same argument being made by the IPA with their forthcoming report.
This feeds into wider discussions about government intervention in Australia in higher education (such as the vetoing of several Australian Research Council grants in 2017 by Tehan’s predecessor, Simon Birmingham), but it also taps into an international culture war over freedom of speech at universities. The IPA declared in its 2018 report that ‘for students to learn and grow academically they must be exposed to a variety of perspectives, even those that they disagree with and find offensive’. But the notion that the university should not be a safe space and that students need to be confronted with offensive ideas is one of privilege, envisioning that students had never faced such ideas before reaching university. Many students would have already encountered racism, sexism, homophobia and transphobia before arriving at university, they don’t need to be exposed to it as part of their higher education experience. While the university is place of intellectual inquiry, it cannot be a place where racism and fascism, as well as sexism, homophobia and transphobia, are deemed suitable ideas to be expressed. The university is a place of teaching, learning, research and intellectual engagement and everybody that partakes in this needs to do so in a safe and prejudice-free environment. As we have seen, this is a battle that is not just being fought in Australia, but across the English-speaking world.