Freedom of speech review arouses campus debate

A debate has erupted on Australian campuses following a government decision that the rules and regulations protecting freedom of speech on university campuses would be reviewed. Federal Education Minister Dan Tehan announced the investigation on 14 November.

Tehan appointed a former chief justice of the High Court, Robert French, to conduct the review. French is also chancellor of the University of Western Australia.

It was not clear why the issue has surfaced at this time, although it may reflect government concerns about the influence of left-wing activists in universities.

Or, critics say, it may be a deliberate distraction by a government facing falling polls and the prospect of losing the elections to be held early next year.

Tehan said French would review “existing material regarding free speech on campus, including codes of conduct, enterprise agreements, policy statements and strategic plans”.

French would also assess the effectiveness of the Higher Education Standards Framework “to promote and protect freedom of expression and freedom of intellectual inquiry in higher education”.

The standards set out the requirements a university must meet to be registered in Australia.

The inquiry would also review the policies and practices of these standards in promoting freedom of expression and intellectual inquiry, Tehan said.

International approaches to promoting and protecting free expression and free intellectual inquiry on campus should be considered as well as whether any would add to protections already in place, he said.

"Universities are important institutions where ideas are debated and challenged. We must ensure our universities are places that protect all free speech, even where what is being said may be unpopular or challenging."

Tehan added that the review could lead to an Australian version of the Chicago Statement which sets out a university’s commitment to promoting freedom of speech.

An important outcome could include a ‘model code’ as a reference for universities in considering their existing rules and guidelines relating to freedom of speech, he said.

The terms of reference provide for French to make recommendations that go beyond academic freedom to include the ‘social environment’ of a university, such as on-campus events hosted by student groups.

But French said in a statement he would respect “the legitimate institutional autonomy of Australian universities, many of which already have their own policies on freedom of speech”.

'Assault' on higher education

The Group of Eight leading universities is believed to have concluded that the free speech move by the government was part of a wide-ranging “assault” on higher education.

This included the government’s recent cuts to research funding, a freeze on increasing domestic student places, and a planned tax on enrolments.

Chair of Universities Australia, Professor Margaret Gardner, noted that the review announcement followed the nation’s vice-chancellors publicly restating their commitment to the “enduring principles of free expression”.

Gardner said that between them, Australia’s universities had more than 100 policies, codes and agreements that supported free intellectual inquiry.

“In this context, it is unclear what issue the government is seeking to address,” she said.

“Australian universities have been on the public record through the ages affirming our long-standing commitment to informed evidence-based discussion and vigorous debate.”

She said the nation’s universities “teach students how to think, not what to think – and we teach them to engage both with ideas they agree with and those they don’t agree with”.

“University staff and students should be free to teach, learn, debate and research without political interference.”

Gardner said assertions in recent media reporting had mischaracterised academic freedom and downplayed the robust state of debate on university campuses.

“Some commentators on free speech at Australian universities have been very wide of the mark – jumping to the wrong conclusions or selectively quoting from university policies and codes.

“These same conclusions would not meet the threshold test of academic inquiry – informed by evidence and facts.”

Gardner said the claims had been made by advocates who appeared to want the government to override university autonomy “with heavy-handed external regulation and red tape”.

“Despite these incorrect assertions, a wide range of opinions are freely expressed on campus – within the context of Australian law and university codes of conduct.”