Talking freely about freedom of speech

In Australia, as in the UK and elsewhere, freedom of speech is a combustible topic that gets the whole nation debating about universities.

In one of his first interviews on becoming Education Minister Dan Tehan was harangued for close to 15 minutes by Alan Jones, a high-profile right-wing shock jock (and erstwhile kingmaker – Jones was named as one of the media mafia behind the recent downfall of Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull) over freedom of speech.

“I think it’s [higher education] the worst portfolio in government,” Jones bellowed at Tehan. “This is the toughest job and, to be honest with you, I’m not sure anything can be done. I think the horse has bolted.”

The horse in question is freedom of speech, of course. Jones was referring to a recent incident at the University of Sydney wherein its vice chancellor Michael Spence was accused of trying to shut down free speech after he refused to foot the bill for additional security for a planned talk by prominent sex therapist Bettina Arndt. The talk, which went ahead after police intervened and removed about 15 protesters, was part of a national tour promoting her book which seeks to debunk claims that university campuses are epicentres of sexual assault and harassment.

In one of his first statements regarding higher education, Tehan suggested he might introduce a policy that would see student protesters foot the bill for security costs. Arndt, it seems, had to pay the $272 (£146) for a security guard out of her own pocket.

Everyone’s talking

Freedom of speech was also on the programme for last week’s National Conference on University Governance (NCUG). The session devoted to the subject followed the opening chancellor’s oration by Australian National University (ANU)’s Gareth Evans, who also focused much of his speech on the very same issue.

For those not in the know, ANU has recently endured a very intense, protracted and agonising bout of media attention over free speech. Hundreds of newspaper articles, spearheaded by the Rupert Murdoch-owned The Australian, plus hours of TV and radio coverage, and a successive tidal waves of social media, were devoted to the issue. It was triggered by ANU’s controversial decision to walk away from advanced negotiations for a $60 million (£33m) grant to establish a course in Western civilisation studies.

ANU was the first university to enter negotiations with the Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation, a new outfit established from the multi-billion estate of Paul Ramsay, who made his fortune out of private hospitals. It’s chaired by former Prime Minister John Howard and has another Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, on its board.

Indeed it was Abbott who fanned the flames that blew the whole thing up after he published an article in the conservative magazine Quadrant in April in which he claimed credit for the idea of the Ramsay Centre and claimed it would have a say over curriculum design and academic appointments.

Then all hell broke loose.

Hostages to the Left

As Evans told his audience: “The nub of the critique of ANU, repeated remorselessly for weeks on end by an army of columnist and editorial writers in the Murdoch press, is that we were intimidated into submission by a coterie of leftist staff and students who were ideologically hostile to the West and all its works and determined to prevent its intellectual and cultural traditions being taught in any kind of respectful way.”

Not true, Evans said: “We were, and remain, adamantly unwilling to compromise our academic autonomy, integrity and freedom in any way in pursuit of financial support.”

The Ramsay Centre undoubtedly holds a different interpretation of events and the two will likely never agree on how or why negotiations actually broke down. But for years to come, the ANU-Ramsay debacle will remain one of the pivotal battles in the Australian front of the culture wars.

High moral battleground

Whether there were any take-home lessons from the whole sad and sorry affair, there is some work going on behind the scenes to decipher whether ANU could have managed it better.

The response from the conservative press and politicians was something we had always considered a possibility but the intensity and scale of the attacks was something else,” she said.

Despite the very public fallout, ANU has a certain amount of high moral ground to stand on – it does not host a Chinese-government backed Confucius Institute primarily because of the risk of interference from Beijing. And by all accounts, such interference is not just a risk, but a reality.

Back at the NCUG, following the panel session on freedom of speech, a robust audience discussion ensued which raised the following points: there is an important difference between freedom of speech and academic freedom, even though the two often get conflated; there should be a line in the sand in relation to topics like anti-vaccination advocates and Holocaust deniers, but where should it be drawn is difficult to define (it was suggested that the risk of actual harm should be the trigger); that the right to protest was also an important element of freedom of speech, and universities, not protesters or speakers, should bear the cost of security.

In the meantime, everyone from Tehan to taxi drivers have been invoking the so-called Chicago Statement. And with the topic of freedom of speech building in pressure, largely driven by a hyper-partisan commentariat (Alan Jones being a ringleader on one side), university vice chancellors might soon be talking to their councils about adopting a similar set of measures.

Back at the Ramsay Centre, it is currently in negotiations with the University of Sydney and the University of Queensland. ANU, for its part, says its door is open should the centre like to re-enter discussions.

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