Freedom of speech pits chancellors against vice-chancellors

Divisions over the right to freedom of speech on Australian university campuses have surfaced between the nation’s vice-chancellors, who run the universities, and their chancellors, who head the governing bodies.

The federal government created the unexpected split when it set up a review into freedom of speech on campus last November and appointed former chief justice of the High Court of Australia, Robert French, to head the inquiry.

His 560-page report was released on 19 June but its recommendations immediately triggered differing responses from the chancellors and the vice-chancellors over the report’s proposal for a ‘model code’ governing freedom of speech issues.

French is chancellor of the University of Western Australia and it appears that his recommendations have been accepted by the 38 other chancellors.

Code rejected by vice-chancellors

Vice-chancellors who have spoken out about the report, however, hold different views and, if not united, appear to broadly disagree with having to accept the French version of a ‘model code’.

One university has gone even further and released its own freedom of speech policy.

A meeting of chancellors is reported to have affirmed that freedom of speech was a ‘governance issue’ in universities and, as such, was a responsibility that sat with them and the institutions’ governing bodies, not the vice-chancellors.

One newspaper revealed that vice-chancellors had been invited to join a briefing held by French but that the invitation was declined.

The model code, however, was promptly endorsed by federal Education Minister Dan Tehan who set up the French inquiry.

Tehan is a member of a right-wing, deeply conservative government and seems intent on countering any plots by leftist academics to influence the nation’s young.

If he expected a report to align with that view, he must have been deeply disappointed: The French model or ‘code’ sets out the principles that would apply to cases where free speech or academic freedom was threatened.

The code would “ensure that the freedom of lawful speech of staff and students of the university and visitors to the university is treated as a paramount value and therefore is not restricted nor its exercise unnecessarily burdened”.

But it would also affirm the academic autonomy of universities and highlight academic freedom as a “defining value”, guaranteeing the rights of staff and students to engage in free-flowing inquiry, commentary and discussion and enjoy freedom of association.

In a surprise move, the University of Melbourne released its own version of a freedom of speech policy about the same time as Minister Tehan released his report.

A Melbourne spokeswoman said the policy been prepared independently of the French review.

She said the university’s governing council had endorsed the new policy “to promote critical and free enquiry, informed intellectual discourse and public debate within the university and in the wider society”.

It was not clear if the council members believed the French model was inadequate or unsatisfactory. But their statement said the Melbourne policy “made explicit the university’s commitment to lawful freedom of speech in its activities and operations”.

“It has been developed under the leadership of [the vice-chancellor],” the council statement said, adding that Melbourne’s policies were “aligned with the principles proposed by Robert French”.

Overriding institutions’ policies

In the model code he proposed, however, French says it should override the administrative policies and codes of conduct set out by each university.

It should also ensure that “lawful freedom of speech is a paramount value only restricted by law, reasonable regulation of access and the discharge of a duty of care to staff, students and visitors”.

“The code is drafted, as a non-statutory instrument, in such a way as to avoid conflict with statutory obligations, whether or not derived from existing delegated legislation or other legal duties imposed on the university by law,” French says in his report.

He adds that a university’s governing body should take steps to develop and maintain an institutional environment in which freedom of speech and academic freedom is upheld and protected.

In addition, students and staff should be treated equitably and students should have opportunities to participate “in the deliberative and decision-making processes”.

Recognising university autonomy

In its new policy, the University of Melbourne says it supports “the exercise of lawful freedom of speech”, while recognising that “the advancement of knowledge and learning requires university autonomy, academic freedom and freedom of speech to be core values of the university”.

The policy statement adds that an environment is required in which “debate and criticism are a fundamental part of university life; and a commitment to orthodoxies being challenged and ideas subject to debate and criticism”.

On the contentious issue of protests, the university says it recognises the right to protest as a manifestation of freedom of speech.

But it also expects in public events and public discourse conducted by or associated with the university, that participants will “respect the need for reasoned argument, discourse and debate”.

“The university does not support the exercise of freedom of speech when the exercise undermines the capacity of individuals to participate fully in the university, or jeopardises the physical safety of individuals, or unreasonably disrupts activities or operations of the university,” the statement says.

Chair of Universities Australia, Professor Deborah Terry, was quoted in a statement by Universities Australia on 25 June saying that French’s model code is being given careful attention by universities to “ensure the robustness of their frameworks for free speech and academic freedom”.

The statement pointed out that these freedoms apply in the context of Australian law, which prohibits hate speech, discrimination and incitement to violence.

Terry said Australia’s universities have been on the public record through the decades affirming their commitment to informed evidence-based discussion and vigorous debate.

“As institutions, we nurture the skills of our students to debate ideas, develop their critical thinking skills and engage with a wide array of views – including those with which they agree and those with which they disagree,” she said.

“The skill of being able to engage in vigorous debate without suspending courtesy is one that our students will need if they are to succeed in the workplace and the world.”

* For a further discussion of the many issues surrounding free speech on campus, including the likely reasons behind the Tehan review, see this commentary by former University of Melbourne vice-chancellor Professor Glyn Davis.