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USyd adopts new Freedom of Speech Charter following French Review

New charters adopted by the University will take effect on 1 January 2020.

The University of Sydney (USyd) has adopted a new Freedom of Speech Charter following the Senate’s endorsement of recommendations from the French Review Model Implementation Group. The outcome means the University’s current Charter of Academic Freedom will be amended and renamed the Charter of Freedom of Speech and Academic Freedom

The decision comes after the French Review found that whilst freedom of speech was not under threat on university campuses, freedom of speech should be bolstered by adopting a Model Code included in university policies on a voluntary basis.

The Charter affirms the University’s commitment to freedom of speech and protest subject to a number of conditions, including “restraints or burdens imposed by law” and “the reasonable and proportionate regulation of conduct.”

The University is specified as having a duty to foster the wellbeing of staff and students, which supports “reasonable and proportionate” actions to prevent speech that would be likely to intimidate, harass or bully individuals, or is intended to have such effects. This duty does not extend to protecting individuals from feeling offended, shocked or insulted by the actions of another.

Conditions to free speech defined in the Charter will ultimately affect which actions are found to constitute misconduct. These conditions include the disruption of the University’s research or educational activity, as well as the interruption or prevention of other individuals speech or access to another’s speech as instances where an action would not be protected against misconduct by the Charter. Under these conditions, students participating in the 2018 Women’s Collective protest against Bettina Ardnt would still likely be subject to misconduct proceedings. 

Though the Charter proclaims that students and staff “enjoy freedom of speech,” the many conditions that its principles are subject to tell an altogether different story. Whether the actions of Dr Tim Anderson, who was fired in February of this year after disseminating a powerpoint slide with a swastika imposed over the Israeli flag, would constitute free speech as defined in the Charter is unclear. Likewise, many instances of student protest would not be protected as free speech under the Charter. The 2017 protest against campus anti-marriage equality campaigners, would likely contravene 1C and 3C of the Charter. 

As with the Code of Conduct and Student Discipline Rule (SDR), much of the wording of the Charter is deliberately vague, and therefore open to considerable interpretation. Principle 5 of the Charter, which places an emphasis on “disagreeing well”, echoes the Code of Conduct policy that students are to treat members of the University community with “respect, dignity and fairness.”

With the introduction of the Charter of Freedom of Speech comes the Student Charter which will replace the Code of Conduct. Changes to the Student Discipline Rule (SDR) are currently under review. It remains to be seen whether the new SDR will include a controversial definition of misconduct which arguably impinges on free speech. Namely that, misconduct “(i) prejudices the good order and government of the University” or “ (ii) prejudices the good name or academic standing of the University.”

Both Charters take effect on 1 January 2020.