Flat White

Time for a freedom fight back in our universities

22 January 2018

7:49 AM

22 January 2018

7:49 AM

‘Who has been too scared to express their opinion in a tutorial?’ I asked a room packed with students last month. Every student hand immediately popped up. ‘Who here has not written their actual opinion in an assessment to get a higher mark?’ I asked next, with the same overwhelming response.

That was at the Mannkal-IPA Sun Rises in the West II conference, but these students’ stories have eerie similarities to I’ve heard as I’ve been speaking about free speech on campuses all over Australia. Again and again, I have been told about people feeling too uncomfortable to express their viewpoints, aggressive activists policing language and interrupting events, and academics dictating what opinions can and cannot be expressed.

Self-censorship is an insidious danger to our universities, and it is spurred along by real censorship and the threat of penalties under insidious speech policies. Everyone is worse off. The student who does not express themselves in class is prevented from fully developing their ideas and being challenged when they are wrong. The other students are prevented from hearing new ideas and receiving an educational experience. The same loss of learning opportunity applies when students are prevented from hearing a speaker on campus.

The IPA’s recently released Free Speech on Campus Audit 2017 has identified evidence of increasing censorship at Australia’s universities, as well as the growing number and scope of speech codes since the last Audit in 2016. The Audit found, from analysis of university policies and actions, that 34 of Australia’s 42 universities are hostile to free speech on campus, an increase from 33 in 2016. Seven threaten free speech on campus, and just one university, the University of New England, completely protects free speech on campus

Australia’s universities are facing a serious cultural turning point. The free speech crisis gripping the higher education sector across the Anglosphere has arrived in Australia. Universities are increasingly becoming hotbeds for a censorious culture in which ideas are not explored for fear of making students feel uncomfortable. The situation in Australia may not have reached the dogmatic heights of US and British campuses but it is certainly on the same cultural track, and, if not addressed, will only worsen in the future.


University policies prohibit a wide variety of speech, including ‘insulting’ and ‘unwelcome’ comments, ‘offensive’ language, and, in some cases, ‘sarcasm’ and hurt ‘feelings’. These policies are, in effect, speech codes that discourage students and academics alike from expressing a potentially controversial idea. In the process of genuine debate, many ideas can, in the eye of the beholder, cause offence and hurt feelings. In practice these policies require students to read each other’s minds, to assess the subjective individual sensitiveness of each other.

In the face of potential punishment, and social ostracism, it is much easier to just not make comments in the first place. The easy life for many students is to just be quiet in class, write what they are supposed to in essays and exams, and just try to get their degree as quickly as possible.

In addition to the chilling effect of university policies, there is growing evidence of censorious actions on campus. The number of universities where there has been action by administrators or students to limit the diversity of ideas has increased from nine to 16 since the IPA’s 2016 Audit. In one case, the University of Sydney student union attempted to block the screening a film, Red Pill, because, it was claimed, the mere showing of a video could ‘physically threaten women on campus’. In another case, student activists violently attacked a ‘No’ campaign stall during the same-sex marriage plebiscite campaign. The University of Sydney, which was found to be the most hostile campus for free speech, has also required conservative students to pay costly security fees which are not charged for the activities of other student groups.

The failure to protect freedom of expression is seriously imperilling the very purpose of Australia’s universities. It is impossible to discover truth, the underlying purpose of a university, if ideas cannot be debated. As J. S. Mill wrote in On Liberty: ‘Both teachers and learners go to sleep at their posts as soon as there is no enemy in the field’.

The Socratic method, in which ideas are contested by people with differing worldviews in pursuit of the truth, necessitates the ability to freely explore ideas – even terrible ones. It is the role of the university to teach students to explore ideas, to foster critical think and the examining of different perspectives, and in the process cause discomfort on the way to understanding. It is only under disinfectant of sunlight that good and bad ideas can be separated, and we can strive to improve society.

As the US Supreme Court opined in 1957, ‘To impose any strait jacket upon the intellectual leaders in our colleges and universities would imperil the future of our Nation. … Scholarship cannot flourish in an atmosphere of suspicion and distrust. Teaches and students must always remain free to inquire, to study and to evaluate, to gain new maturity and understanding; otherwise, our civilization will stagnate and die.’

The news, however, is not all bleak. We are on the cusp of a new free speech revolution on campus. The instinctual reaction of a growing number of students and academics is to fight back against censorship, to freely express themselves without fear or favour. Students are organising events on controversial topics and refusing to bow down to pressure. Academics are speaking out and fighting for their academic freedom.

The radicals on campus today aren’t the hive mind leftist establishment; they are the freethinking warriors for free speech. The more intellectual freedom is under attack; the freedom fight back will only grow stronger.

Matthew Lesh is a research fellow at the Institute of Public Affairs and author of the IPA’s recently released Free Speech on Campus Audit 2017.  

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