Leading university heads have warned of the urgent need to take a stand against encroaching threats to free speech across Australia’s tertiary institutions
Expanding the meaning of words such as ‘violence’, ‘aggression’ and ‘traumatic’ to describe speech provides universities with a spurious excuse for censorship.
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Leading university heads have warned of the urgent need to take a stand against encroaching threats to free speech across Australia’s tertiary institutions, including US-inspired boycotts of speakers and classroom “trigger warnings” about details that might upset students — with one high-profile chancellor disavowing the notion that campuses should be “safe spaces”.
University of Western Sydney chancellor Peter Shergold has warned that attacks on free speech are a relatively recent development in Australia and university governing bodies should be prepared to make tough decisions to defend the integrity of their institutions.
Speaking to The Australian following a robust panel discussion on the topic at the University Chancellors Council annual conference in Adelaide yesterday, Dr Shergold said his personal view was that universities should default to a position of enabling “as much freedom as possible — not to constrain, not to control”.
“Universities need safe spaces for students, be they LGBTI or Muslim … where they can go and talk to each other,” said Dr Shergold, the council’s chairman.
“But university campuses cannot be safe spaces in terms of ideas.
“People should be challenged by ideas, see a diversity of ideas. That’s the heart of the institutional ethos of a university.”
Dr Shergold’s comments — which come amid mounting concerns that universities are increasingly becoming closed intellectual shops, prone to groupthink and the censoring of diverse ideas — were echoed by Australian National University chancellor Gareth Evans.
While Mr Evans has recently been forced to defend the university’s decision to withdraw from plans for a new degree in Western civilisation — which was to have been funded by the John Howard-chaired Ramsay Centre — he too slammed the emerging phenomenon of staff and students seeking to shut down debate under the premise that people should not be exposed to ideas with which they disagreed.
“We are hearing about ‘no-platforming’ — disinviting or shouting down visiting speakers espousing various heresies; about the need for ‘trigger warnings’ — alerting students to potentially upsetting racially, politically or gender-sensitive themes,” Mr Evans said.
“Most disconcerting of all, the need for ‘safe spaces’, where students can be completely insulated from anything that may assault their sense of what is moral and appropriate.”
Institute of Public Affairs research fellow Matthew Lesh cited recent publicised threats to free speech such as opposition to the Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation, which ANU staff and students accused of pushing a “racist” and “radically conservative agenda”, as well as the violent protest over psychologist Bettina Arndt’s appearance at the University of Sydney. These were just “the tip of the iceberg”, Mr Lesh said.
He told the conference that the proliferation of social justice policies around cultural inclusion, global citizenship and sustainability were to blame for restraining free speech. “I speak to academics and students at your institutions almost every day … (they) tell me about a worrying culture of censorship,” he said.
“Australia’s universities are lacking in viewpoint diversity — a range of perspectives challenging each other in the pursuit of reason, truth and progress. This leads to groupthink, self-censorship, and sometimes active shouting down.”
He said universities had a choice between either encouraging free inquiry or treading a social justice path and seeking to “change the world” — but choosing the latter would “not only undermine academic scholarship and student learning, it could be seriously damaging to the reputation and viability of the institutions”.
Mr Evans said it wasn’t only universities that were at risk, referring to the decision by the Brisbane Writers Festival this year to disinvite former NSW premier Bob Carr and feminist Germaine Greer as “absurd to the point of indefensibility”.
Joking that he was perhaps an “unreconstructed child of the 1960s”, the former Labor senator and foreign affairs minister said principles of “timeless significance” were at stake and university administrators and governing bodies “simply must take a stand”.
“Lines have to be drawn, and administrators’ spines stiffened, against manifestly unconscionable demands for protection against ideas and arguments claimed to be offensive,” Mr Evans said. “Keeping alive the great tradition of our universities — untrammelled autonomy and untrammelled freedom of speech — is a cause to which university chancellors … should be prepared to go to the barricades.”
Concern about the impacts of growing campus activism has been on the political radar for some months.
Education Minister Dan Tehan recently proposed to the Group of Eight universities that measures to protect freedom of thought and expression should be considered, such as requiring student activists who sought to disrupt an event to pay for additional security costs. He expressed concerns that in the case of Sydney University, event organisers were being levied with the bill.
Steven Schwartz, a former vice-chancellor at three universities in Australia and Britain, said: “Today’s university students will grow up to be tomorrow’s lawyers, politicians, and judges. For the sake of our democracy, we cannot allow a generation of graduates to grow up believing that there are issues that are too dangerous to discuss.
“Expanding the meaning of words such as ‘violence’, ‘aggression’ and ‘traumatic’ to describe speech provides universities with a spurious excuse for censorship.”
Professor Schwartz said if universities failed to defend free speech, governments might intervene: “I am sure they will not like the result.”