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Double standards in religious free speech

By Alex Perrottet - posted Thursday, 9 May 2013

Professor Fred Hilmer must have an interesting email inbox. The Vice-Chancellor of the University of New South Wales scrolled through copious complaints in late March when the student magazine Tharunka depicted a cross inserted into a vagina on the cover, with the title “Church F**ks Women”.

He assured Christians and non-Christians alike that he had received a large amount of correspondence on the issue.

And in response, he refused to make any public statement about the deep offense the publication gave to a great number of the university’s students, and the public at large. Instead, he offered this standard response to at least a number of the complaints:


Freedom of speech is fundamental to every university and any idea of censorship does not fit well in this environment...from time to time, there will be points of view and ways of expression that some members of the university and broader communities will find inappropriate or offensive.

Now you might think that stance is fair enough. But if you are going to say that, you must be consistent.

Last week, a protest was organised against the opening of a Max Brenner store on the UNSW campus. The protesters, organised by the UNSW group Students for Justice in Palestine, planned a peaceful protest against what they allege the store stands for - support for the Israeli Defence Forces and their actions against Palestine. Some people posted offensive anti-Semitic remarks on that group's Facebook page. The group distanced itself from those who posted the comments.

But it was the university’s reaction that stood out like a sore thumb. Almost immediately there was a statement on the university website, singing a different tune than before.

We are sure the University’s student body is also horrified and offended by such statements...The University supports and encourages the free expression of diverse views and open debate on campus but it must be lawful, respectful and responsible.

Wow. Suddenly the university has jumped to attention like a nervous private in front of his drill sergeant. Gone are the banners of free speech, and up goes the standard of respect and responsibility!


In response to an editorial in the Australian newspaper, the Vice-Chancellor again weighed into the issue last week: “we support and encourage the free expression of diverse views on campus - as long as it is lawful, respectful and responsible.”

Professor Hilmer is clearly going to great pains to alleviate readers that may have been “under the impression that the university was silent on the matter”.

It is pointless to start comparing the gravity of the offenses. Both are vilification of religion and/or race. But it’s important to note the stark difference in the university's reaction.

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About the Author

Alex Perrottet is an Australian journalist currently working in New Zealand.

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