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Free Speech in Academia

8 August 2016

Peter Tzimos

Ellen YG Son

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Over the last few months, there has been an increase in debate surrounding free speech and the conduct of university academics. This follows the suspension of academic and Safe Schools co­ordinator Roz Ward from La Trobe University in June this year.

Having posted on her private Facebook profile that the Australian flag was “racist” and should be replaced with a red Socialist flag, Ward’s suspension has spurred questions about how academics behave in the public sphere, and adds to ongoing discussion surrounding how university institutions hold power over their staff.

Victorian Secretary of the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) Dr Colin Long condemned Ward’s suspension as part of an ideological campaign by La Trobe management, who “seem to think that political views should be a criterion for employment”. Despite the controversial nature of Ward’s statement, freedom of expression is seen as a deserved right of academics, and the NTEU views her suspension as a direct attack on this right.

However, the University of Melbourne recently drafted a new “Appropriate Behaviours Policy”, which includes a section on Academic Freedom of Expression. This policy proposes changes to protections that allow University of Melbourne staff to enter public discourse and engage with politics uninhibitedly, and holds staff members accountable to a list of criteria which includes demonstrating courtesy, values of the University and respecting the beliefs and opinions of others.

The NTEU, in response, has stated that freedom of expression does not fit under “behavioural issues”, and claims that this policy will dilute the few protections that staff members have to speak freely. Furthermore, the University of Melbourne is one of few universities to explicitly create policy that allows their staff members to speak without fear of institutional consequences, should they cause offence.

In founding the Safe Schools Coalition, Ward has positioned herself as a public figure who is no stranger to controversy, with debate surrounding the anti­bullying program that has been drawn out for months. Her Marxist views, which do not affect the outcomes of the program, are a right she has to express, alongside her already controversial advocacy for the LGBTI+ community.

A healthy promotion of ideas is a herald of universities, with clear distinctions being made between fruitful debate, causing offence and causing harm. In this case, Ward, through a private platform, is entitled to an expression of political opinion, yet her dismissal only indicates the increased power of institutions in the realm of public relations.

Freedom of speech has long been a stronghold of conservative commenters in justifying bigoted and vitriolic sentiment, but their voices were expectedly unheard in justifying Ward’s right to express far­left political views.

Alternatively, despite the far­left movement promoting Ward’s reinstatement, some activists have attempted to silence academics themselves in the past. In 2014, a first­year University of Melbourne politics lecture given by former MP Sophie Mirabella was interrupted as protesters accused her of denying the Stolen Generation, and resulted in police escorting Mirabella outside in fear of violence.

It is this hypocrisy that has become most prevalent in the aftermath of Ward’s suspension. The right to freedom of speech is too often promoted selectively, and is ignored when the views being expressed are unpalatable. Censorship on the part of academic institutions in this vein only gives them unwarranted power to select what they see as favourable, and dismiss those who step out of line politically.

However, the role of university students has been brought into question alongside this debate, with trigger warnings and content warnings becoming more common in lecture theatres and classrooms. Content that may be traumatising for some students remains free to explore for students who choose to participate, yet there is debate surrounding the validity of these warnings as some see it as hindering progression in the classroom.

It is the distinction between causing harm and causing offence that is most interesting in this debate, as the safety of staff and students within an institution remains paramount. While censorship of information is a cause that educational institutions inherently oppose, and freedom of speech encourages the promotion of ideas, the importance of staff and students’ mental wellbeing should ensure these ideas are both safely explored and readily available. The power of institutional censorship is what remains unclear in the future as discussions are still underway.