The free speech on campus culture war rages on

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Australian Education Minister Dan Tehan

In his speech to the Republican National Convention, Donald Trump repeatedly referred to ‘cancel culture’, ‘radical professors’ and ‘speech codes’ as things to be battled in the United States. In one section, he declared:

We will fully restore patriotic education to our schools and always protect — we will always, always protect free speech on college campuses. And we put a very big penalty in if they do anything having to do with your free speech. Colleges have to pay a tremendous, tremendous financial penalty. Again, it is amazing how open they have been lately.

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 the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education. However at the time, critics argued that the executive order is vague and already covered in many areas by existing arrangements.

While Trump talks about how ‘open’ universities have been lately, it is unclear what the impact of the executive order has been, although there were reports in late 2019 that the order was being used to pressure universities to incorporate more conservative and right-leaning views. Furthermore, due to Covid-19, universities haven’t really been open for much of 2020.

Trump’s speech follows on from the Campus Free Speech Restoration bill introduced by Senator Tom Cotton and other Republicans, which seeks to ‘protect’ free speech at US colleges and shut down any supposed impositions on the First Amendment on campus. Introduced just months out from the 2020 election, the bill builds on Trump’s executive order from last year and as we have seen with his RNC pronouncements, has made the free speech ‘crisis’ an electoral issue.

On the other side of the Atlantic, the Conservative Education Secretary Gavin Williamson announced that universities would need to prove their dedication op uphold academic freedom and free speech on campus in order to secure funding to alleviate the impact of Covid-19 upon the higher education sector. A Department for Education document from July stated that as part of the conditions for funding, ‘all universities must, of course, demonstrate their commitment to academic freedom and free speech, as cornerstones of our liberal democracy’. This was alongside calls for student union funding to be revamped and ‘focused on serving the needs of the wider student population rather than subsidising niche activism and campaigns’ – a right-wing policy on student unions since the days of the Federation of Conservative Students in the late 1970s.

The Conservatives had pledged to ‘strengthen academic freedom and free speech in universities’ in their election manifesto last year, which was followed by Williamson floating the idea of legislation to protect free speech in February of this year. Freedom of speech at universities and colleges and academic freedom are both enshrined in legislation introduced by the Thatcher government in 1986 and 1988 respectively, after previous controversies surrounding student protests against right-wing politicians at various universities in the mid-1980s.

Under Williamson’s predecessor Justine Greening, the Universities Minister Jo Johnson had launched an inquiry by the Joint Committee on Human Rights on freedom of speech at British universities in late 2017. After more than 100 written submission and over 35 people presenting oral testimony to the inquiry, the Joint Committee’s final report found that while there had been some incursions on ‘lawful free speech’, this ‘did not find the wholesale censorship of debate which media coverage has suggested’. The report also called for greater intervention by the newly formed Office for Students against student unions when protestors went ‘beyond the law’ in attempts to disrupt or shut down events, but beyond the suggestion that the OfS should publish an annual report on the topic of free speech at universities, the recommendations did not extend far beyond what was already in place under the Education (no. 2) Act 1986.

Alongside Williamson’s pronouncements about impending legislation regarding free speech on campus and academic freedom, the right-wing thinktank Policy Exchange has recently published its own report with policy recommendations to protect academic freedom. The report echoed Williamson’s proposals to ‘strengthen’ academic freedom and free speech at universities, but also called for the establishment by the OfS of a Director of Academic Freedom to ensure their ‘compliance with the public interest governance conditions concerning academic freedom and freedom of speech’. In The Guardian, both Jo Grady (the General Secretary of the University College Union) and Jonathan Portes heavily criticised the report’s findings and its recommendations. But it was championed by many on the right side of politics in the media as vindication of their claims that there was a free speech ‘crisis’ in higher education.

Although the A-Levels controversy has superseded this issue in the last few weeks, when university resumes (in one way or another) next month, the threat of further government intervention, as flagged by Williamson and encouraged by right-wing politicians and commentators, still looms large for the university sector.

Similar concerns about academic freedom and free speech on campus have been expressed in Australia, where the right-wing thinktank the Institute of Public Affairs and sections of the Murdoch press have used tropes employed in the United States and Britain to raise the spectre of a free speech ‘crisis’ at Australian universities. Following a similar path to Britain, the Liberal government announced an inquiry into free speech and academic freedom at Australian universities in 2018. Chaired by former Chief Justice of the High Court Robert French, the inquiry found that there were few actual incidents of free speech being hindered on campus, remarking that the 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’. The report recommended a code of conduct for universities to commit to upholding free speech, which a number of universities pledged to implement, although it is uncertain what impact this has had and will have. Nick Riemer argued 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’. Furthermore, Hannah Forsyth has written in The Conversation, the government’s attentiveness to free speech on Australian campuses is little more than a dog-whistle to particular political interests and that ‘the government’s policing of free speech, ironically enough, may threaten academic freedom’.

This has not perturbed the Morrison government, with Education Minister Dan Tehan announcing that Professor Sally Walker would conduct a further review into how Australian universities have approached free speech issues since the French inquiry and  the implementation of the code of conduct proposed by the French report. In establishing the review, the Department of Education, Skills and Employment stated that all universities had agreed to implement this Model Code by the end of 2020, even though the adoption of this code was supposedly voluntary. When asked on Sky News whether the government was considering legislation concerning freedom of speech at universities, Tehan said that he didn’t want to pre-empt the findings of the Walker review, but also affirmed that ‘we have not ruled anything out’.

This has come at a time when academic freedom and freedom of speech at Australian universities has reached the headlines again. While the right have raged against ‘wokeness’ and ‘cancel culture’ over the last few months, particularly since the reignition of the Black Lives Matters movement across the globe, there has also been increasing concern about the issue of the influence of the Chinese Communist Party and its various front groups on various campuses, with controversies at UNSW and the University of Queensland. While recognising the impact that Chinese nationalism and its exponents can have upon international students from mainland China and Hong Kong, the discourse surrounding this in the press has often fallen into xenophobia and anti-communism, reminiscent of the Cold War days. And on top of the Walker review, some right-wing backbenchers have now called for a separate government inquiry into Chinese influence at Australian universities and its threat to academic freedom.

This has shifted the discourse on academic freedom and free speech in Australia. While previously the focus was on left-wing students involved in instances of ‘no platforming’ and a fear of ‘safe spaces’ on campuses, sections of the media now emphasise China as a threat. Although this aspect of the discourse has been building over the last few years (see here and here for examples), it was not as prominent. In the French report, over 50 incidents were highlighted for alleged incursions on freedom of speech, but only 7 involved China or Chinese politics in some way.

All the while, protests at the University of Sydney over the proposed higher education funding reforms have seen a heavy police presence, with students arrested and fined for allegedly violating the limit of twenty people gathering outside as stipulated under New South Wales’ Covid-19 legislation.

Britain and Australia have both held inquiries into the state of free speech and academic freedom at universities in their countries, which came to similar conclusions about the extent of the so-called ‘crisis’, but both the Conservatives and the Liberals have sought to pursue this further, with possible legislation and another review in the pipeline. In the United States, ‘cultural Marxist’ professors and left-wing students are still portrayed as a threat to free speech that requires a legislative fix, even though Trump’s executive order has been in place for more than a year. As I wrote in February this year:

the myth of a free speech “crisis” has been spread by the right as part of a broader culture war against “political correctness”, “wokeness” and “identity politics”. In an era when conservatives and the populist right have been in the ascendancy, the culture war has descended on universities, because they are a significant battleground against racism, misogyny, homophobia and transphobia (as well as traditional class hierarchies).

Despite right-wing governments being in power in all three countries, there is a concern, even a fear, on the right of what they call ‘cancel culture’ and ‘wokeness’, especially in the wake of Black Lives Matter, with some likening this phenomenon to Mao’s Cultural Revolution, Khmer Rouge or the Taliban. Universities are seen as hotbeds of left-wing radicalism that disseminate subversive ideas about identity politics, critical theory and Marxism, which challenge the status quo. Academic freedom and free speech have been used as entry points for a wider assault on higher education in all three countries – and the devastating impact of Covid-19 on the sector has also provided the right with an opportunity to pursue this agenda.

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