We recognise that open expression on campus will sometimes lead to protests

Universities are intellectual spaces and censorship of opinion is not the right way to solve freedom of speech conflicts, says Dawn Freshwater  

August 27, 2018
Protesters at the University of Florida
Source: Getty

Recently, a booking by an external organisation of a University of Western Australia venue for an event featuring a controversial speaker raised questions for all of us, within the university and on social media, about the limits of free speech. In the face of rising and vocal opposition from some students and staff, the university executive and the chancellor made the decision that the event should go ahead – although ultimately, and unfortunately, the event was moved to a non-UWA venue when the organisers were unable to provide appropriate event management plans and risk management strategies.

I use the term “unfortunately” advisedly: what happened here is similar to what has happened on university campuses around the world. It is indicative of a tension between the dogma of the censor and incitement. Neither of those things is welcome on campus.

If we really think of universities as the cornerstone of debate, discussion and academic rigour, then we have to think about how we do that in a way that doesn’t serve the dogma of the censor nor condone incitement. Universities are intellectual spaces and they should promote and encourage broad debate. Noting, as I did in 2005, that spaces are invested with all sorts of meanings and can be co-opted to serve particular bodies of knowledge, power interests and subjectivities.

As a nation, Australia recognises the right to freedom of speech and expression. We do that formally through the international human rights treaties and domestic political rights. Majority and minority views and societal norms change over time. We should remember that – and that they will again evolve. Our polity would not evolve at all if the majority was always able to silence opposing voices.

Our nation’s commitment to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights requires us to protect unpopular views, even if these offend or shock certain individuals or groups. But what does this mean in practice – and where do we draw the line?

Most issues evoke both an emotional response and an intellectual response, but freedom of speech issues are particularly difficult to resolve when they relate to an individual’s or a group’s sense of identity, as they did in the case at my university.

The paradox is that some groups see it as acceptable to be offensive in a way that attempts to silence their opponents, in order to get a message across about how offensive those opponents are. 

Critical for me is what I perceive to be a mass epidemic of anxiety, akin to that which Hugh McKay outlines in his recent book, Australia Reimagined. And as Philip Stokoe points out, when mass anxiety is present, it creates feelings of a need for certainty, which means that curiosity and thinking take a back seat. 

As a university, curiosity and thinking are at the core of what we do. Part of what has been disappointing about the recent events was the lack of thinking about how we’re thinking.  

In 2001, I co-authored a paper that proposed a typology of reflexivity – a reflection that goes beyond the usual introspective confines to consider the social and political context in which practices take place.  

This is really important when we look at polemic. We have to think about how we’re thinking and do that in a very critical way, through critical reflection, and not just assume that the dominant discourse – of either the censor or of incitement – is necessarily about the subject matter at hand. Often it is about fear, power and control.

These issues speak to a broader crisis of leadership that has resulted in a polarisation of politics and a public discourse where opponents are seen as enemies. This is an issue for universities, but it’s a much broader issue in terms of how we deal with freedom of expression and freedom of speech. 

As the vice-chancellor of a university at which I have been leading a values clarification exercise across all staff groups, I do not believe that censorship of opinion is the right way to solve issues. Where do you draw the line in an organisation such as a university with diverse views – and who in the university should be the arbiter of which views are acceptable and which views are not? What happens if an individual still disagrees?

In the coming weeks and months UWA will be continuing its conversation about what freedom of speech means on our campus. We will consider what other universities have done, such as the Chicago Statement and legislative requirements in the UK for universities to uphold free speech on their campuses. Because, frankly, universities are not places to endorse freedom of ignorance.

Dawn Freshwater is vice-chancellor at the University of Western Australia. 

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