Uni chiefs rally to the Conservatives' free-speech standard

October 05, 2018

Leading university heads have warned of the urgent need to take a stand against encroaching threats to free speech across Australia’s tertiary institutions.  Recent developments include US-inspired boycotts of speakers, classroom “trigger warnings” about details that might upset students — with one high-profile chancellor dis­avowing the notion that campuses should be “safe spaces”.

The university chiefs have been emboldened by the hard work of Cory Bernardi and Australian Conservatives in calling out the rapidly deteriorating free speech situation on university campuses. Senator Bernardi was obstructed from speaking at a Hobart University event during the marriage debate, and before that encountered violent protesters at a Melbourne university.

The Conservative Party has been raising the

  • erosion of free speech by Chinese communist government funded 'Confucius' Institutes,
  • censorship of debates in student elections,
  • the adoption of trigger warnings at a Melbourne university
  • the hostility to the Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation at the ANU, and 
  • the scandalous 18C case against Queensland University of Technology students for speaking out against racial segregation

University of Western Sydney chancellor Peter Shergold has warned that attacks on free speech are a relatively recent development in Australia and university governing bodies should be prepared to make tough decisions to defend the integrity of their institutions.

Speaking to The Australian following a robust panel discussion on the topic at the University Chancellors Council annual conference in Adelaide yesterday, Dr Shergold said his personal view was that universities should default to a position of enabling “as much freedom as possible — not to constrain, not to control”.

“Universities need safe spaces for students, be they LGBTI or Muslim … where they can go and talk to each other,” said Dr Shergold, the council’s chairman.

“But university campuses cannot be safe spaces in terms of ideas. People should be challenged by ideas, see a diversity of ideas. That’s the heart of the institutional ethos of a university.”

Dr Shergold’s comments — which come amid mounting concerns that universities are increasingly becoming closed intellectual shops, prone to groupthink and the censoring of diverse ideas — were echoed by Australian ­National University chancellor ­Gareth Evans.

While Mr Evans has recently been forced to defend the univer­sity’s decision to withdraw from plans for a new degree in Western civilisation — which was to have been funded by the John Howard-chaired Ramsay Centre — he too slammed the emerging phenomenon of staff and students seeking to shut down debate under the premise that people should not be exposed to ideas with which they disagreed. 

“We are hearing about ‘no-platforming’ — disinviting or shouting down visiting speakers espousing various heresies; about the need for ‘trigger warnings’ — alerting students to potentially upsetting racially, politically or ­gender-sensitive themes,” Mr Evans said. 

“Most disconcerting of all, the need for ‘safe spaces’, where students can be completely insulated from anything that may assault their sense of what is moral and appropriate.”

Institute of Public Affairs research fellow Matthew Lesh cited recent publicised threats to free speech such as opposition to the Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation, which ANU staff and students accused of pushing a “racist” and “radically conservative agenda”, as well as the violent protest over psychologist Bettina Arndt’s appearance at the University of Sydney. These were just “the tip of the iceberg”, Mr Lesh said.

He told the conference that the proliferation of social justice policies around cultural inclusion, global citizenship and sustainability were to blame for restraining free speech. “I speak to academics and students at your institutions ­almost every day … (they) tell me about a worrying culture of censorship,” he said.

“Australia’s universities are lacking in viewpoint diversity — a range of perspectives challenging each other in the pursuit of reason, truth and progress. This leads to groupthink, self-censorship, and sometimes active shouting down.”

To read Rebecca Urban’s full article, click here.

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