If you want to come here and say the earth is flat, you can – v-c

UNSW Sydney leader Ian Jacobs says Australia’s proposed free speech code could prove counterproductive

August 30, 2019
Source: Getty
Unrestrained UNSW Sydney won’t be banning any speakers unless what they plan to say is unlawful, Ian Jacobs asserts

Australia’s proposed free speech code weakens rather than strengthens freedom of expression on campuses, UNSW Sydney vice-chancellor Ian Jacobs has warned.

Professor Jacobs said that while the code was a “laudable attempt to do something useful for the sector”, it could be counterproductive. “The people who drove this process argued that universities were not protecting freedom of speech,” Professor Jacobs told Times Higher Education.

“The irony is that we risk ending up with a model code which, if it was adopted, would constrain freedom of speech.”

He said that it was “dangerous” to make special arrangements for free speech at universities. “Why would one have different rules for freedom of speech on a campus to the street outside?” he asked.

“If Australia wants to legislate about freedom of speech it should do so for the whole nation through the constitution.”

UNSW is scheduled to host a talk later this month by sex therapist Bettina Arndt, whose claims of a confected “rape crisis” on campuses have infuriated some students. Her appearance at the University of Sydney last September, which was interrupted by protesters and attended by police, is thought to have prompted the government to commission a review of free speech on campuses last year.

Professor Jacobs insisted that he would not prevent Ms Arndt from addressing his university. “We won’t be banning anyone from coming to this campus because people don’t like what they’re going to say, unless what they’re going to say crosses the law,” he said.

“Bettina Arndt [and] other people can say what they want to say. Other people can give an opposing view. Hopefully everyone will behave in a reasonable way. If [that] doesn’t happen we’ll have to deal with it.”

Australian universities are considering whether to adopt the model code, which was drafted by University of Western Australia chancellor Robert French as part of the government’s free speech review.

The code allows campuses to bar speakers thought likely to say things that break the law, prejudice universities’ ability to “foster the well-being of staff and students” or undermine “scholarly standards” so much that they could bring universities into disrepute.

Professor Jacobs rejected the third constraint. “If people want to come here and say the earth is flat, [they can] come and say it,” he said.

“I don’t believe it will in any way bring the university into disrepute. They’re speaking for themselves, not the university.”

In June, a working party of three chancellors, including Mr French, revised the code to allow unscholarly theories to be advanced by speakers invited to campus by people associated with the university. “Unfettered debate is the best poison antidote,” the Australian National University’s Gareth Evans wrote in an email explaining the changes to fellow chancellors.

However, the revisions still allow universities to bar speakers who have not been invited from espousing unscholarly positions. Professor Jacobs opposed this clause, saying speakers without any connection to UNSW would be able to book its facilities as long as they did not break the law or claim university endorsement of their views.

He disagreed with a condition in the draft code that enables universities to require speakers to contribute to the costs of maintaining safety. “We take the responsibility for security on campus ourselves,” he said.

Professor Jacobs also opposed the barring of speakers on staff and student well-being grounds, saying that he would exclude them only on the recommendation of security services or police. “If we thought things were going to reach the point that our security team couldn’t handle, and there was a real threat of violence, we would liaise with the authorities and get their advice,” he said.

He said that such circumstances were more likely to be triggered by safety concerns such as a major storm which closed the campus several years ago, or a terrorism hoax last August.

Professor Jacobs added that he would not constrain staff from speaking out about lawful matters, including criticising the university’s administration. “It’s pretty hard to [maintain] that people should be able to say whatever they want within the law on our campus, and then not allow our academics to have that freedom,” he said.

“In a university environment, people are always saying things that a leadership team don’t want to hear. We may not like it. It may be uncomfortable. Sometimes it will be true. Sometimes it will be untrue. We just shrug and move on.”

john.ross@timeshighereducation.com

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: ‘If you want to come to this campus and say the earth is flat, you can’

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