Last year revealed the limits of free speech at the University of Sydney. When political economy lecturer Tim Anderson featured a Nazi swastika painted over an Israeli flag in one of his lectures, the university gave him the boot. Previously expressing solidarity with the government of North Korea and speaking out on behalf of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad was not enough to get him fired. The Powerpoint swastika was the final straw.
Freedom of speech is a fine thing, but the freedom to lecture has its limits. Yet in a case of the strangest of strange bedfellows, Melbourne’s Institute for Public Affairs has “spotlighted” the sacking of Dr Anderson as one of six actions “hostile to freedom of speech” in a 2018 audit of free speech at Australian universities.
The IPA also stood up for the due process rights of Socialist Alternative, a self-described “revolutionary Marxist organisation” that stands for “the overthrow of capitalism”. When a leading free market thinker takes the side of revolutionary Marxists and North Korean sympathisers, you know something is up. Or maybe it’s just a Sydney-Melbourne thing.
All told, the IPA gave Sydney a “hostility to free speech” score of 58, by far the worst of any Australian university. The IPA’s home team at the University of Melbourne racked up only four hostility points. The top score of 0, representing no hostility at all, went to Armidale’s University of New England.
Now, I do not want to be the one to say that there is not much going on in Armidale. I’ve never been there, and I’m sure that it’s a nice place. But I think we can all agree that controversial speakers such as the Dalai Lama and sex therapist Bettina Arndt don’t often visit the University of New England.
They do visit Sydney. Much has been made of the A$475 (£261) security fee that the university charged for Arndt’s controversial lecture on what she calls the “fake rape crisis” on Australian campuses. In reality, that is little more than the cost of keeping the lights on. When the riot squad was called to her event, it was to remove student protesters, not to prevent Arndt from speaking.
The IPA and other free speech advocates also criticise the University of Sydney for mandating political correctness. But for 10 years I have taught my Sydney students that it is OK to oppose gay marriage, that Australia’s “stop the boats” policy is a humane approach to refugees and that opposition to immigration is not racist. All very politically incorrect.
Then there is the running battle over the university’s bid to offer a degree funded by the Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation. I have loudly supported former prime minister Tony Abbott’s call for a programme that is “not merely about Western civilisation but in favour of it”. I have even written a book in support of Donald Trump.
And I have never faced so much as a whisper of reproach about my politically incorrect ways – at least not on campus.
Which is not to say that campus life is a bed of roses. As someone who always speaks my mind, I strongly suspect that I have been penalised for being a political troublemaker. But that is little p political, as in annoying my bosses. My political freedom of speech has been limited only by my good judgment – and my good taste.
If your idea of free speech runs from swastikas to socialism, you will find those at the University of Sydney. If you prefer reasoned debates, you will find those, too. In fact, you’ll find lots of speech, of all kinds. Sometimes it’s offensive, and sometimes it is plain incorrect. But even when it costs A$475, it’s always free.
Salvatore Babones is an associate professor at the University of Sydney and the author of The new authoritarianism: Trump, populism, and the tyranny of experts.