Letter from Australia – cry freedom (of speech)

Over the past couple of years many miles of newsprint, gigawatts of audio hours and many conference sessions have been spent discussing freedom of speech on Australian campuses. It’s a topic de jour. In fact, I’ve already devoted a Letter from Australia to the subject.

It’s in the spotlight again following student protests against writer and commentator Bettina Arndt who was invited onto the two campuses to express her view that claims of a rape culture in universities were overblown.

One might say she considers the so-called rape crisis a confected crisis.

Arndt, who eventually spoke at both campuses at the invitation of Young Liberals clubs after running the gauntlet of angry protesters, has been held up by the right-wing commentariat as some sort of warrior princess upholding conservative values while casting a light on the left-wing ideologues who attend, staff and run university campuses.

In the aftermath of the Arndt affair and many months of hysterical headlines after Australian National University declined $60 million from the Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation, our most recent Education Minister Dan Tehan announced an inquiry into freedom of speech on university campuses. In his media statement Tehan said, rather patronisingly, “The best university education is one where students are taught to think for themselves and protecting freedom of speech is how to guarantee that”.

He suggested that his review, to be chaired by Robert French, a former Chief Justice of the High Court and chancellor of the University of Western Australia, might consider the development of “an Australian version of the Chicago statement” – a voluntary framework that sets out a university’s commitment to promoting freedom of speech.

Things must be really bad if the government thinks a review is in order. Right? Think again.

When a crisis is not a crisis

ANU, which has been the epicentre of much of the media attention this year, convened a summit last week to take a deep dive into the issues of freedom of speech and academic freedom.

As ANU vice chancellor Brian Schmidt noted “Most of the debate has lacked nuance, and poorly treated the relationship between freedom of speech with issues of academic freedom, academic autonomy and academic integrity.”

Enter Glyn Davis, former VC of Melbourne University and currently professorial fellow at ANU, who decided to apply his very beautiful analytical mind to the issue of freedom of speech and see whether there actually was a crisis, as the right wing commentariat so boldly claimed.

In short, the answer is no. In a keynote, Davis described the claims of two right-wing think tanks – the Institute of Public Affairs and Centre for Independent studies – and that of government ministers as “special pleading”.

“We special plead because we want something to be true even when we cannot prove the case. We rely on only those facts which suit our argument, claims of widespread support for our point of view and the use of memorable examples, even when these diverge from verified broader trends,” Davis said.

He went on: “We are offered scraps of unrelated incidents. Tenuous and sometimes tendentious claims. Occasional concerning incidents. Some poorly framed policies. As though these sum to a higher mark.”

Davis’s clinical dissection of such special pleadings – what he described as a “confected crisis” – found there was in fact very little evidence of unpopular views and and conservative speakers being muted on campuses. In fact he could only find the sacking of one anti-climate change academic (although its questionable whether he was sacked because of his views or because he was just a very bad scientist). There was the Arndt affair, which saw riot squads face up against unruly protestors. The Ramsay debacle. Some complaints from Chinese students about a map. The University of Western Australia recently cancelled a speech by American transgender sceptic Quentin Van Meter and some unruly behaviour over a film screening at Sydney University.

A handful of incidents

As Davis noted, Australian universities have over one million students and 55,000 staff. It’s hard to call a handful of random and unrelated events a “crisis”.

Davis argued that the culture of identity politics in the US is used to exaggerate a non-scenario here. The two campus cultures just don’t align.

He also ridiculed (very gently) and then tore apart an audit of university policies by the IPA that found thirty four of Australia’s 42 public and private universities were “hostile” to freedom of speech, seven were kinda okay and just one was open and progressive. It’s highly likely that university was just lax in establishing appropriate policies.

“Since evidence of systematic constraint on speech and events, academic freedom and censorship is tenuous, why proclaim a crisis at all?” asked Davis.

“Because a crisis justifies intervention (that is) hard to argue in more peaceful times.” Such as Tehan’s Chicago statement.

Given the shambolic final week of federal politics before the Christmas break, it is unlikely the government will ever find the time or space to deal with the French review. Submissions aren’t due until the end of February and it is unlikely French won’t have time to pull it all together before the May election. And there’s a pretty good chance that he won’t deliver Tehan the findings that he wants anyway.

As Davis so eloquently revealed, the freedom of speech debate is a red herring designed to distract us from more important issues. Such as funding policies that make universities dependent on international students and donors. Such as new security laws that circumscribe some areas of research. Such as lack of transparency in the vetoing of research grants.

Tehan might have bitten off more than he can chew. Based on the discussion at ANU’s summit last week, universities are up for a robust and hearty discussion about freedom of speech. Whether the government is too, is another question.

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