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Free speech green-lit by new proposals

A revamped Charter of Academic Freedom will diagnose inconsistencies in the university's approach to free speech

A sit-down protest by University of Sydney students as part of the Vietnam Moratorium in 1969: Supplied by the University Archives

Changes to campus free speech rules are on the table after a French Review Task Group made several recommendations to be considered by the Academic Board next month.

The French Review — helmed by former High Court Justice Robert French and convened by Education Minister Dan Tehan — came on the heels of a widely-reported Women’s Collective protest against Bettina Arndt’s controversial speaking tour late last year.

The review found that no free speech crisis exists within higher education providers or student organisations,  However it nonetheless recommended the adoption of a Model Code to protect free speech and academic freedom.

A University Task Group led by General Counsel Richard Fisher and consisting of SRC President Jacky He and senior NTEU and college staff believe an existing University document should be amended to include parts of the model code.

They have settled on recommending a small set of changes to the existing Charter of Academic Freedom, all of which follow the touchstone of civility and the notion of “disagreeing well.” 

The decade-old Charter enshrines the University’s commitment to free enquiry and the responsible pursuit of knowledge. 

Now, under the Task Group’s proposed amendments, the Charter will undergo a rebrand to the lengthier Charter of Freedom of Speech and Academic Freedom in the hopes of clarifying  inconsistencies in the enforcement of free speech on campus.

Under the Charter, new provisions will guide the application of other University policies, including student discipline rules. 

Free protest should not be exercised in a way that prevents the free speech of others or which causes property damage or physical risk or danger to others, according to recommendations by the Task Group.

The Task Group’s Issues Paper also lists several examples of where the free speech of others is prevented, including where access to buildings is blocked, where people are prevented from attending events or speakers are prevented from being heard. 

The removal of the Lennon Wall on Eastern Avenue by an SRC Education Officer and members of the Panda faction as well as protesters at Bettina Arndt’s speaking tour last year would both likely fall within this category of preventing free speech.

But while the University took no action against students involved in removing the Lennon Wall, it suspended two of the protesters involved in the Bettina Arndt protest.

After a Lennon Wall was removed in the Law School, a spokesperson told Honi that “students have a long history of using the campus for political debate and protest — including putting up and removing posters on political issues.”

“We are committed to respecting their right to express their views in this manner,” they said. 

Unlike the neighbouring University of Technology Sydney, the University never established a regulated space for Hong Kong students to put up messages of solidarity — a move criticised by the organisers of the Hong Kong solidarity protest in a letter to the Vice-Chancellor seen by Honi.

“Despite the fact that the Vice-Chancellor, Michael Spence, has spoken out against the censorship of the Lennon Wall, there has been no immediate action undertaken to protect students’ freedom of expression,” the letter read.

The inclusion of a “blocking access to buildings” in the recommended limitations on free speech would also affect activist ‘sit-ins’ — which frequently involve numerous students occupying a building and preventing its ordinary use.

Back in 2016, students in the Let SCA Stay campaign occupied the Dean’s office to oppose the University’s relocation of the visual arts school.

Sit-ins were also employed by students activists as part of the movement to establish a Political Economy degree at the University. Under the Model Code, it is possible that both of these protests, among many others, would not be protected as valid expressions of free speech. 

Principle 8 of the Model Code stipulates that staff should not be precluded from including content in their courses, solely because it may shock or offend any student or class of students. 

In February 2019, Dr Tim Anderson was suspended and later sacked by the University for superimposing a Nazi swastika onto the Israeli flag in his lecture slides for ECOP3017.

Part of the University’s reasoning for Anderson’s removal was that it would be “reasonable to find the image offensive”. Although it is unclear whether Principle 8 is referring specifically to materials which may be considered subjectively offensive, it is arguable that Anderson’s slides would have been protected by the Model Code. 

Student representative bodies will be asked to adopt the principles of the code, but whether they do so is at their discretion.

Vice-Chancellor Michael Spence reiterated the importance of debate and free discussion on campus, including those that were controversial or unpopular.

“The guarantee of freedom for our staff, students and visitors is something we’ve always taken seriously at the University of Sydney but it’s important to be vigilant,” said Spence.

The new proposal comes after limited feedback was received from two students, the Australasian Union of Jewish Students (AUJS) and the National Centre for Cultural Competency (NCC). 

In its submissions to the Task Group, the AUJS sought assurances that the implementation of the Model Code would not lower the “standard of debate” on campus. 

The Task Group was also asked by the NCC to consider that “the viewpoints, knowledges and histories of marginalised groups most impacted by harmful speech are not always considered in debates about what speech may be injurious.”

The Academic Board will discuss the recommendations on 5 November.