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When freedom of speech means only one opinion is allowed

By Mary Broadsmith - posted Thursday, 7 June 2012

“Our universities are so determined to impose tolerance that they'll expel you for saying what you think and never notice the irony”. This is one of my favourite quotes by American poet John Perry Barlow. It brings to mind a particular history honours class in which our tutor asked us whether we believe in ‘truth’. A student immediately answered; “Well, all throughout university we are told there is no such thing as truth, so I guess no I don’t believe in truth.” I expressed my disagreement with this comment, and the room was silent, as students stared at me in disbelief.

Before we begin our university years, we are told to expect a free-thinking academic experience, where we will be challenged to fight for our views, enjoy healthy debate with people who hold a variety of opinions, and that we will be able to express ourselves freely, without judgement. It was therefore incredibly disappointing to discover that the reality can be quite the opposite. There are many university lecturers and tutors who encourage healthy debate, and I do not intend to generalise about the profession at large. I have certainly been shut-down by academic staff before, but more often, the intolerance seems to stem from the powerful student groups, as shown in the particularly negative response provided by students trying to shut down the new ‘LifeChoice’ group at the University of Sydney.

The University of Sydney Union (USU) narrowly approved LifeChoice last week, in a vote 6-5. I applaud the chairwoman of the USU, Ms Matthews, who cast the deciding vote to approve the group, therefore staying true to what universities should idealistically support – freedom of speech. Indeed LifeChoice falls precisely into the category of this age old university ideal, promoting “reasonable and informed discussion on the issues of abortion and euthanasia in Australian society”.


However, according to members of the Students’ Representative Council, this discussion should be forbidden from the University of Sydney. A petition has been set up in response to the Union’s decision, demanding that LifeChoice should be banned from operating at the University. The author of the petition claims that “the USU is supposed to promote positive campus culture not single-issue lobby groups”. Clearly, this author needs to brush up on her knowledge of the history of Clubs and Societies at the University of Sydney. Aside from the huge array of political clubs and societies which have been in operation for decades, which are notably ‘lobby groups’, the University has hosted a colourful spectrum of unique clubs, bringing different views and opinions to university life.

Can you imagine how the ‘Heretic Society’ would have been received when it was approved in 1917? And why is the current ‘Students for Palestine’ society allowed to exist, given that it is clearly a one-issue focus group? These clubs and societies, and many more, have provided an avenue for discussion on the divisive topics of politics, religion, and global issues. Why then, are students trying to shut down a discussion about abortion and euthanasia?

I would like to question these protestors – where better to have a discussion about two of the most fundamental ethical issues of our generation, than at a University, among the leaders of the future? Why should one’s University experience be limited to an exposure to only one way of thinking? These protestors need to wake up and realise that their views can be challenged by others, and this does make their opinions any less valid. Regardless of whether you believe in a cause, a group that encourages open discussion can only be a good thing.

In 1988, 430 universities across Europe signed the Magna Charta Universitatum, which was a proposal from the University of Bologna to celebrate academic freedom. This document stated; “Freedom in research and training is the fundamental principle of university life”, emphasising that universities must be “always open to dialogue”. These principles are more than idealistic – they have been present in Universities throughout the world since the first institutions were set up in Medieval Europe. Australian Universities have a lot to answer for in this regard.

I still believe in the ideal that one’s University experience should be challenging, and should open one’s mind to the plethora of academic ideals, to help you enrich your own philosophies. I sincerely hope that the University of Sydney can hold true to this old-school ideal, and will not succumb to the narrow-minded pressure to ban a society, which has a purpose to open the doors to discussion.

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About the Author

Mary Broadsmith is a Sydney writer who works in media and communications. She has studied arts, communications and law at Macquarie University, and has an honours degree in international history.

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