Terror laws spark alarm

May 12, 2006

Geoff Maslen reports from Melbourne on how academic freedom is being threatened by new sedition legislation

Australian vice-chancellors are alarmed by government efforts to tackle terrorism by introducing laws that could harm universities and restrict academic freedom.

The vice-chancellors have demanded the repeal of sedition laws and, with the staff union, have denounced government proposals to extend export controls to cover academic conferences, research papers and seminars.

The Government advised universities last week that academics would be asked to report any attempts by students to procure items or services that could be used for weapons of mass destruction (WMD).

A joint letter from the Defence and the Trade departments sets out university responsibilities under laws governing the export of goods, services and technologies "that in the wrong hands could pose a significant threat".

The document says the Government is reviewing laws intended to prevent the use of Australian research or training to develop WMD or to aid terrorist activities. It says the laws may be extended to include "intangible technology transfer" such as research papers, seminars, conferences, operational manuals and skills training.

The Government's actions follow similar moves in the UK and the US, where academics have been asked to alert authorities to potential WMD research and to student applications from countries believed to have such weapons.

The defence and trade document says there is an increased risk of rogue nations and terrorist organisations attempting to access Australian expertise as the nation's universities become large international entities with campuses worldwide.

"Not only is the intangible transfer of WMD-related technology through research, training and conferences a concern, but many universities and tertiary institutions are conducting cutting-edge research, which potentially could be exploited for use in WMD programmes," it says.

The Australian Vice-chancellors' Committee said it was concerned by the proposals. It has called for the sedition laws to be replaced with acts that "more appropriately deal with threats to national security in relation to universities and academic freedom".

Carolyn Allport, president of the National Tertiary Education Union, said universities had a responsibility to prevent the transfer of technology directly related to WMD under the existing export control system.

She said the union was alarmed by the proposals to extend export controls to intangibles such as research papers and conferences because such widening of controls would present significant dangers for universities, their researchers and staff.

"Restrictions on the distribution and exchange of knowledge risk creating a chilling effect on scientific debate," she said.

In a submission to the Australian Law Reform Commission, the AVCC said the new laws restricted the extent to which academics and students were free to discuss matters of societal concern.

John Mullarvey, the AVCC chief executive, said vice-chancellors wanted to protect the special role universities had in relation to free, open and critical expression.

He said the new laws impinged on free academic thought and inquiry. A core element of the work of universities was to subject the actions of the Government and parliamentary legislation to critical scrutiny. This applied also to technology and science departments, whose work frequently criticised government policy, Mr Mullarvey said.

Details: www.avcc.edu.au/seditionlaws

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