Australian v-c calls for free speech principles after controversial event cancelled

‘Dominant discourse of the censor’ must not trump free expression on campus, UWA head says

August 17, 2018
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An Australian vice-chancellor has called for universities to adopt a sectoral position on free speech after her university cancelled a controversial address on safety grounds amid the threat of protests.

University of Western Australia head Dawn Freshwater said that the sector should emulate the University of Chicago in articulating principles of free expression. She has also called a meeting of her academic board to discuss what she terms a “crisis of leadership” afflicting society.

“I personally, and as the vice-chancellor of this university, do not believe that censorship of opinion is the right way to solve issues,” she said. “Universities are not places to endorse freedom of ignorance.”

On 16 August, the University of Western Australia cancelled an event scheduled by the Australian Family Association – which opposes same-sex marriage, transgenderism and “permissive” abortion laws – after earlier resolving to let it proceed.

The event was to be headlined by Quentin Van Meter, an American endocrinologist who has likened treatment of gender dysphoria to “child abuse”. The university stressed that it did not endorse these views, but originally said that denying the group access – after learning that a campus venue had been booked by a University of Western Australia alumnus – would “create an undesirable precedent for the exclusion of objectionable views”.

The decision triggered social media uproar and plans to demonstrate. Medical student Thomas Drake-Brockman beseeched the university to change its mind. “I expect my university to see this harmful, anti-science, anti-LGBT monstrosity for what it is,” he wrote in a petition.

The university’s academic union backed the students, saying that Dr Van Meter’s organisation had been branded a “hate group” by a US civil rights organisation. “Intellectual freedom does not extend to speech that can harm people – hate speech,” said acting National Tertiary Education Union branch president Sanna Peden. “It is absolutely inappropriate for a public university, of all places, to promote a platform for these views.”

The booking was subsequently “voided” over safety concerns after the event organisers failed to produce a risk management plan in line with venue hiring requirements.

Professor Freshwater said that activist groups, using oppression and “silencing” to fight perceived oppression, were “perpetuating the very behaviours and thinking that they are opposing”.

“The paradox is that they’re doing that to get a message across about how offensive other people are,” she said. “It’s important for us not to succumb to threats of violence and the sort of fear that’s instilled by not tolerating difference.”

She said that there was a need to distinguish a fundamentalist state of mind from active fundamentalism. Terms such as “hate speech” warranted critical evaluation rather than acquiescence to the “dominant discourse of the censor”, she added.

The Chicago statement, which has been co-signed by dozens of universities, vetoes any restriction on debate of ideas considered “offensive, unwise, immoral or wrong-headed”.

It is for the members of the university community to make those judgments for themselves,” the document says. “Faculty, students and staff are free to criticise, contest and condemn views [but] may not interfere with the freedom of others to express views they reject or even loathe.”

Professor Freshwater said that human advances had occurred in times of uncertainty. She said that an anxiety epidemic afflicting the Western world had created a need for feelings of certainty, “which means curiosity and critical thinking take a back seat”.

“We are in an environment in which curiosity and critical thinking are core. We have to think about how we’re thinking, and do that in a very honest way.”

john.ross@timeshighereducation.com

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