Review finds no freedom of speech issue at universities

By Anthony Lotric

An independent review has found that there is no “systematic pattern” of suppression of freedom of speech on on Australian university campuses by higher education providers or student representative bodies. The report, released the weekend before last, mentioned ANU a number of times.

The review was announced by Minister for Education Dan Tehan last November. Robert French, a former Chief Justice of the High Court of Australia, was tasked with assessing “the effectiveness of university policies and practices”, and how they “promote and protect freedom of expression and intellectual inquiry”.

The review was prompted in part by a series of audits into free speech conducted by free market think tank the Institute of Public Affairs, and a paper by the Centre for Independent Studies. The IPA, who were more vocal in their criticism, claimed that “Australia’s universities are failing to protect free speech on campus,” and recommended that they “abolish speech codes” and “introduce a policy that protects intellectual freedom”. The IPA’s submissions to the review were quoted heavily by French throughout the report. One example mentioned by the IPA was at ANU, where a student newspaper sub-editor “censored student opinion pieces” following the election of Donald Trump in 2016.

A key concern of the report was the “broad language” used in many university policies, with fears that this lack of specificity would impede on freedom of expression. Specifically mentioned is the ANU’s Discipline Rule. This rule, created by the Vice Chancellor, has the status of Federal Legislation, as the ANU is governed under Federal statute. The rule broadly defines “misconduct” as conduct which “demonstrates a lack of integrity or a lack of respect for the safety or wellbeing of other members of the University community”. French described this as terminology which creates the “potential for overreach”. Such vague terminology is, he claims, “rife” on Australian university campuses.

ANU’s rejection of the Ramsay Centre’s proposed Bachelor’s Degree in Western Civilisation was mentioned only briefly in the report, with French stating that it was “not necessary to offer any view” on the controversy. French does note, however, that the Ramsay Centre controversy “underpinned an aspect of the debate” which led to the review.

ANUSA discussed the issue of Freedom of Speech at its first SRC of 2019. Discussion of the Council focused on the National Union of Students’ (NUS) Free Speech Charter. Students from the Socialist Alternative spoke in favour of the charter, criticising what they described as a “really concerted effort” by the “far right and Liberals” to “suppress freedom of speech”. Students speaking against the charter primarily criticised the “broad wording” of the charter, and the lack of student consultation. The motion did not pass.

PARSA President Zyl Hovenga-Wauchope told Observer that PARSA considered the review “unnecessary”. In his view, those who suggest that Australian universities do not protect freedom of speech and intellectual inquiry are “fear mongering” and “falling prey to clickbait journalism”.

The ANU is yet to formally comment on the findings of the French review. In 2018, it issued a statement affirming a commitment to academic freedom and freedom of speech. ANU affirmed that it will “defend the right of our staff and students to exercise their academic freedom”.



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