La Trobe University is encouraging censorious behaviour by charging special security fees for an event with commentator Bettina Arndt hosted by the campus Liberal club.
Security fees create a heckler’s veto: the charge empowers the people who disagree to organise the biggest, most aggressive and therefore costliest protest they can muster. The Liberal club could ultimately be forced to cancel the event if security fees become too high. In the end, the censors win, free speech loses.
The charging of security fees to the Liberal club is a form of victim blaming. The disturbance is not expected to come from within event, it could only come from outside. It makes no sense to punish Liberal students for the danger imposed by others.
There is also a serious inconsistency issue which reveals a university closed to opposing perspectives. If La Trobe does not charge left-wing groups for speakers then why are they charging Liberal students for a speaker? Is it because they are seeking to discourage and punish certain speech?
This inconsistency would be unconstitutional in the United States, where the Supreme Court has declared that the content of speech is not justification for additional costs.
This is why the University of California at Berkeley paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to secure events with provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos and conservative Ben Shapiro. The university may not have liked their speech, but they declared themselves open to free debate and put money behind their principles.
La Trobe appears to be taking a very different approach to free debate. Revealingly, the security bill came after La Trobe withdrew their initial ban of Arndt.
Arndt has become a controversial figure. She is a sex therapist who writes and speaks about gender relations and domestic violence. These are difficult topics – particularly when you question the dominant narrative about campus sexual harassment and assault, as Arndt does.
In an era of intellectual monoculture on campus, Arndt is precisely the type of person that our universities should be welcoming. She helps provide the missing counterpoint to the left wing perspective, the missing debate that is necessary for effective teaching and research.
John Stuart Mill wrote that ‘He who knows only his own side of the case knows little of that.’ You have no reason to prefer your own ideas if you do not understand the opposing perspective. Nor is it good enough to ‘hear the opinions of adversaries from his own teachers,’ Mill says, ‘He must be able to hear them from persons who actually believe them… he must know them in their most plausible and persuasive form’.
The near ban and disgraceful security fees are not the first sign that something is wrong at La Trobe. The Institute of Public Affairs’ free speech on campus research has revealed La Trobe’s serious lack of viewpoint diversity.
The IPA’s Free Speech on Campus Audit awarded La Trobe a ‘Red’ ranking for policies that forbid ‘unintentional… offence’ and language that causes ’emotional injury’. It is impossible to freely explore controversial ideas without potentially causing unintentional offence or perhaps even emotional distress. It is difficult to hear ideas that are different from your own – but being intellectually challenged is the entire purpose of a university.
The on-campus experience reflects these policies. Students have told the IPA about lecturers encouraging them ‘to pursue social justice causes’ – instead of teaching all ideas and letting students reach their own conclusions. They have also reported that academics mock conservatives in class and give them lower marks.
In response classical liberal and conservative students are pretending to hold a left-wing perspective or say nothing. ‘Generally, I don’t talk in class on political issues,’ one student, who has seen their conservative classmates harassed by tutors, said.
In the past, La Trobe was well known for their radicalism, protests, and differing ideas. Today, the university is suffering from the left wing monoculture disease. La Trobe has a responsibility to not shy away from debate and encourage the voicing of a range of perspectives.
Matthew Lesh is a research fellow at the Institute of Public Affairs.
Editor’s note: Since this piece was published, La Trobe administrators appear to have had a change of heart. Then again, while free speech is as glorious as the first blossoms at the end of winter, the will of university administrators is as variable and as cruel as the first gusts of spring (ahem).
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