When in late 2018 the Federal Minister for Education, Dan Tehan, commissioned Robert French to undertake an inquiry into "Freedom of Speech in Australian Higher Education Providers" it was a welcome if belated acknowledgement of the very real issues on Australian campuses – issues which are of particular concern to academics and students not disposed to conforme to the dominant cultural left ethos of Australian universities.
Robert French, was the Chief Justice of Australia (2008-2017) and is currently the Chancellor of the University of Western Australia (UWA), and so as you would expect his report - which was released just as this article was going to press - is thoughtful and thorough, but the Review was limited in its terms of reference and the consultation process was conducted very much amongst insiders. The recommendation that Universities adopt a Code of Conduct to protect academic freedom and free speech has some merit, though given the scale of the issues it is what we might call 'a good start'. This article is mainly concerned with the issues that gave rise to the review, and supports the view that a Code of Conduct could only be effective if the University in question is actually committed to free speech for academics, students and visiting speakers. Much more fundamental change is required.
It was French himself who warned in a 2018 speech that Universities face the risk of legislative intervention unless they provide a robust defence of free speech on campus. He remarked that campus speech codes could be subject to the implied freedom of political communication previously articulated by the High Court:
To the extent that universities, operating under the authority of acts of parliament which create them, make legal rules affecting freedom of speech, those rules would have to comply with the implied freedom
He also argued that the actions of university executives might also be subject to the implied freedom. Curiously, this argument accords with that made by Joshua Forrester, Lorraine Finlay, and myself in a 2018 paper published in the UWA Law Review, Finding the Streams' True Sources: The Implied Freedom of Political Communication and Executive Power
Australian universities are legally obliged to protect freedom of speech and freedom of expression. The governing legislation requires that Universities have 'a policy that upholds free intellectual inquiry in relation to learning, teaching and research'.
Furthermore the sector's regulator, the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency (TEQSA), in its 2017 'Diversity and Equity' guidance note, declared: 'Measures taken to accommodate diversity should not contravene the pursuit of intellectual inquiry, and more generally, freedom of expression'.
Unfortunately one can provide numerous examples of the tyranny of political correctness that has spread across Australian campuses. The IPA 'Free Speech on Campus Audit 2018', found 34 out of our 42 universities adopt policies that substantially limit freedom of speech.
The report's author, Matthew Lesh, said such a failure to protect free speech:
is seriously imperilling the discovery of truth, the core purpose of Australia's universities; student development, which requires debate and challenge; and the future of Australian society, which depends on a tolerance and openness to debate
All quiet on Western front
The climate on campus is well illustrated by the decision of the Australian National University (ANU) to pull out of negotiations with the, the Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation, over funding for a scholarship and teaching program in studies of Western Civilisation. Vice-chancellor Brian Schmidt announced the ANU had withdrawn from negotiations on the grounds of academic freedom, despite no attempts to have such freedom limited by the Ramsay Centre.
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