Campuses not obliged to host ‘intellectual rubbish’, says review

Australian government baulks at legislative amendments to clarify free speech and academic freedom

April 6, 2019
Microphones

Australian universities should not be obliged to provide a venue for “any intellectual rubbish”, a review of free speech on Australian campuses has concluded.

The review, by former High Court chief justice Robert French, highlights an “abundance” of nonsense seeking access to campuses. It says universities are entitled to exclude external speakers spouting theories that are purportedly based on scholarship or research, “but which fall below scholarly standards to such an extent as to be detrimental to the university’s character”.

Universities are also within their rights to demand that invited speakers cover security costs and comply with booking procedures. The principles are outlined in a “model code” contained in Mr French’s 300-page report, which has now been released.

While not legally enforceable, the code would furnish universities with “umbrella principles”, the report says, adding: “Its purpose is effectively to restrain the exercise of overbroad powers to the extent that they would otherwise be applied adversely.”

Education minister Dan Tehan backed the idea. “While recognising that universities are autonomous institutions, I am writing to all higher education providers to urge them to carefully consider the adoption of the model code,” he said.

As revealed by Times Higher Education last month, Mr French also wants a definition of academic freedom included in the Higher Education Support Act. And in line with a submission from the National Tertiary Education Union, he suggests replacing references to “free intellectual inquiry” with the term “freedom of expression and academic freedom”.

While claiming to have accepted Mr French’s recommendations, Mr Tehan poured cold water on the amendments. “As Mr French makes very clear in his report, the model code can be adopted without the suggested changes to the Higher Education Support Act and the Higher Education Standards,” Mr Tehan said.

The report says amendments to the act and standards are “not essential” but would be “preferable”.

As flagged by THE, the review found no evidence of a “free speech crisis” on Australian university campuses. But overly broad policies create the impression of one, the report says.

University rules and policies are littered with expressions like “lack of respect”, “prejudicial” and “reprehensible”, the report says. Such widely interpretable terminology allows for regulatory “overreach” which can erode “important freedoms”.

“It makes the sector an easy target for those who would argue that the potential exists for restrictive approaches to the expression of contentious or unwelcome opinions,” the report says.

“The diversity and language of a range of policies and rules give rise to unnecessary risks to freedom of speech and to academic freedom. Even a small number of high-profile incidents can have adverse reputational effects on the sector as a whole.”

The complexities of managing free speech issues are illustrated by Mr French’s reflections on “intellectual rubbish”. “Sometimes one person’s intellectual rubbish is another’s profound wisdom,” the report says.

“What is intellectual rubbish today may be received wisdom tomorrow, and vice versa,” it adds.

The report says there is an argument for exposing students to “the proponents of intellectual rubbish, including racist opinion”. Such experiences might help them “better identify it [and] understand how it is propagated and how to challenge it effectively”.

john.ross@timeshighereducation.com

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