Campus freedom of speech not under threat, French Review finds

Freedom of speech remains alive and well on campus

The middle of last November was a tireless time for most: Students were busily entering stuvac, the campus bin chicken breeding season was beginning, and former Chief Justice of the High Court Robert French had just started his independent review into freedom of speech at Australian Universities.

The terms of reference were simple. Do existing higher education standards promote and protect freedom of expression and freedom of intellectual inquiry? The answer, however, proved more complex.

The review consulted a smorgasbord of stakeholders. Although yours truly’s organisation, the University of Sydney (USyd) Student Representative Council was within the scope of stakeholders, SRC President Jacky He told Honi that the SRC had received a letter from one of Robert French’s assistants but had not been invited to a consultation.

“We have not been consulted in physical or media forms,” He said.

“I believe that University of Sydney on a holistic picture promotes an atmosphere that encourages speech freedom on campus.”

“I would like to think that everyone on our campus has the right to express their own opinions on certain issues as long as the facts that they are stating are not counterfeit.”

Honi understands that the SRC was asked on the last day of former President Imogen Grant’s presidency to provide SRC policies on no-platforming and other comments. Responsibility for the SRC’s response was handed over to Jacky He, who apparently failed to respond.

Previous Honi Soit controversies, including the suspension of former editor Michael McDermott for anti-semitic headlines, also made the cut in the report.

The review’s findings, released on Saturday, concluded that protection of freedom of expression and intellectual inquiry on campus require strengthening, but only to a minor degree.

The final report was 300 pages. Honi trawled through it so you don’t have to. Here’s what we found.

The review found that reported freedom of speech incidents in Australia, including protests and rallies, do not establish a systemic pattern of higher education providers or student organisations acting adversely to freedom of speech in the sector.

Two key recommendations were made.

First, protection for freedom of speech should be strengthened by the adoption of a Model Code embedded in higher education providers’ policies on a voluntary basis.

This recommendation directly responded to the terms of reference which suggested the “development of a sector-led code of conduct.” As a voluntary code, it accommodates University concerns towards overregulation.

The review also recommended minor legislative amendments to higher education legislation to re-align ‘free intellectual inquiry’ with the proposed Model Code’s identification of ‘free speech.’

Freedom of speech incidents at USyd represent the overwhelming majority of incidents amongst Australian universities if a 2018 audit by the conservative think tank Institute of Public Affairs (IPA), cited by the review, is to be believed.

There are “serious impediments to free speech within university policies, a growing number of concerning incidents, a worrying closed culture and lack of viewpoint diversity, and a failure of the existing legal framework,” said the IPA in its submission. The IPA continues to lobby for the introduction of an Australian version of the “Chicago principles” — the set of paramount principles which affirm freedom of speech and are endorsed by more than 40 American universities.

The Report cites a history of student activism as evidence for the gradual weakening of freedom of speech on Australian campuses.

Key examples include the lengthy scuffle between Foreign Minister Julie Bishop and the Education Action Group and National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) in the wake of university deregulation proposals in 2014 and the more recent protest against the Sydney University Liberal Club’s decision to platform Bettina Arndt’s “Fake Rape Crisis” speaking tour. 

Beyond student activism, the audit also implicates the role of leadership and management in University institutions through activities which constrain academic freedom and freedom of speech on campus, including ‘no-platforming.’

A Q&A hosted by the Sydney University Muslim Students Association entitled “Grill a Muslim” was cancelled at Vice Chancellor Michael Spence’s personal request.

USyd also refused to provide a hosting venue for Australian Christian Lobby Managing Director Lyle Shelton. More recently, USyd policy has come under the spotlight with the University requiring student clubs to cover foreseeable security costs.

In its analysis of academic freedom, the review also referenced USyd’s recent sacking of lecturer Tim Anderson for disseminating lecture materials which featured an “altered image of the Israeli flag” including a “cropped swastika.”  

The IPA audit’s findings conflicted with submissions given by the higher education regulator, the Tertiary Quality and Standards Agency (TEQSA) which oversees higher education institutions.

The Chief Commissioner of TEQSA, Professor Nicholas Saunders, admitted that TEQSA was unaware of most cases in which free intellectual inquiry was the basis of an incident or complaint on campus.

The audit was also contradicted by submissions from the Group of Eight (Go8) Universities which argued that universities already had comprehensive policy frameworks in place.

“There is no substantive evidence of the alleged ‘crisis’ of free speech on Australian university campuses,” said Go8 Chief Executive Officer Vicki Thomson.

“Should there ever be a need to further guarantee freedom of speech, this may be best achieved through constitutional reform rather than university regulation,” Thomson said.

Five countries have entrenched protective provisions for “academic freedom” in their national constitutions. A far greater number have guarantees for a qualified freedom of expression, like the United States’ First Amendment.

Australian universities have been historically self-regulated.

The University of Sydney Act provides that the object of the university is the “encouragement of the dissemination, advancement, development and application of knowledge informed by free inquiry.”

To that end, USyd has had a Charter of Academic Freedom for the last decade which provides several umbrella principles on freedom of speech on campus, including the need for “principled and informed discussion of all aspects of knowledge and culture.”

In its submission to the review, the National Union of Students (NUS) endorsed the Go8’s view that the review was largely redundant, arguing that its member organisations across Australia had not experienced a free speech crisis.

Although individual incidents have occurred, their frequency was rather more moderate than media coverage might suggest, the NUS submission said.

Several other organisations, including the National Association of Australian Universities Colleges (NAAUC) also reported that no issues of free speech had been raised to them by team members, guest speakers or delegates.

A 2018 Committee on Human Rights in the UK found that certain incidents on campus can have a “chilling effect” on campus freedom of speech.

If the French Review is anything to go by, assertions that freedom of speech is declining on campus have well and truly thawed.

More to come