Fine universities if they won’t protect freedom of speech

Sep 21, 2018 by

By Tom Switzer –

In 1932, a student group at the University of Chicago invited the US Communist Party presidential candidate to lecture on campus. As you might think, William Foster’s remarks were highly provocative and they drew fierce criticism. A harbinger of the McCarthy-era “red scare”.

At the time, the university president Robert Hutchins defended the decision to host the controversial speech by saying the “cure” for objectionable ideas “lies through open discussion rather than inhibition”. He later insisted that “free inquiry is indispensable to the good life, that universities exist for the sake of such inquiry, and [that] without it they cease to be universities”.

Students protesting against the establishment of a course in Western civilisation at the University of Sydney.
Students protesting against the establishment of a course in Western civilisation at the University of Sydney.

Photo: Fairfax Media

Fast forward to 2015. The same university released a report from its Committee on Freedom of Expression. Led by law professor Geoffrey Stone, the Chicago report read: “The university’s fundamental commitment is to the principle that debate or deliberation may not be suppressed because the ideas put forth are thought by some or even by most members of the university community to be offensive, unwise, immoral, or wrong-headed.”

The Chicago report went on to declare: “Although members of the university community are free to criticise and contest the views expressed on campus, and to criticise and contest speakers who are invited to express their views on campus, they may not obstruct or otherwise interfere with the freedom of others to express views they reject or even loathe. To this end, the university has a solemn responsibility not only to promote a lively and fearless freedom of debate and deliberation, but also to protect that freedom when others attempt to restrict it.”

Someone should pass the Chicago statements to Australia’s university chancellors, vice-chancellors and senates. Ed Santow is responsible for free-speech issues at the Human Rights Commission and he told the Herald that universities should consider a Chicago-style code of conduct that ensures controversial figures are able to speak more freely on campus. It is a noble cause.

One of the basic elements of a genuinely liberal society is free speech. That includes the right for people to advance views others disagree with, even views that many might find unpalatable.

Alas, many contemporary Western democracies are awash in movements – mainly on the left spectrum of opinion – that seek to shut down debate, suppress opposing views or insist that some groups are more deserving of a “platform” than others. Across US and British university campuses, dissenting (predominantly conservative and classical liberal) speakers have been shouted down and even physically assaulted to enforce ideological conformity.

In this atmosphere, those who express attitudes that fall outside the bounds of today’s acceptable opinions are silenced. This may help protect students from hearing “offensive” or “hurtful” ideas. Whether it will teach them anything at all is less clear. It probably just creates a self-conscious paranoia in the classroom.

As the controversy surrounding the violent student blockage of Bettina Arndt at the University of Sydney shows, Australia is hardly immune to these illiberal trends. The prominent social commentator attracted the ire of the academic left by questioning survey research on campus sexual offences and suggesting that overtly broad definitions of assault trivialise real crimes.

The controversy over the failure of the Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation to find residency at an Australian university shows that some of our higher education institutions are increasingly in the grip of identity politics. Protesting academics at the University of Sydney claim teaching students about the rich history of Western arts and letters will somehow offend the principles of diversity and inclusion on campus.

Never mind “the glory that was Greece and grandeur that was Rome, Christianity, the Renaissance, the Reformation, the Enlightenment, the French and Industrial revolutions, representative democracy, the rule of law, the market economy”, as the distinguished University of Sydney doctorate of letters Owen Harries has described Western civilisation.

Protesters attempted to block access to Bettina Arndt's recent talk on the campus of Sydney University.
Protesters attempted to block access to Bettina Arndt’s recent talk on the campus of Sydney University.

Photo: Karleen Williams

If the governors of the universities fail to protect intellectual freedom with a Chicago-style charter, the federal government should take matters into its own hands. It could fulfil its obligations to taxpayers by using its leverage to impose financial penalties. Our university leaders are the stewards of billions of tax dollars, paid by millions of people who don’t obsess about “queer literature”, “rape culture” and “racial oppression”. Don’t their views deserve to be reflected in the organisations their taxes fund?

No doubt some students are offended by what flows from free speech. However, the belief that students need to be protected rather than challenged in the classroom is anti-intellectual. As part of their training for adulthood in a free society, students might instead be encouraged to learn to reflect and debate various schools of thought. As Hanna Gray, a historian and former president of the venerated University of Chicago, once said: “Education should not be intended to make people comfortable; it is meant to make them think.”

Tom Switzer, a former history student, tutor and lecturer at the University of Sydney, is executive director of the Centre for Independent Studies.

Source: Fine universities if they won’t protect freedom of speech

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.