UNSW stands up for free speech

University of NSW chancellor David Gonski and his vice-chancellor Ian Jacobs are as one: freedom of speech is critically important and the same rules should apply on campus as in the general community.

“Our starting point, our fundamental principle is that freedom of speech in the university should be the same as freedom of speech anywhere else in Australia unless there is a very, very, very powerful reason otherwise,” Professor Jacobs said in an exclusive interview the pair did with The Australian.

Mr Gonski agreed. “We want this place to be the same as outside and be an open place for discussion,” he said.

When most universities are declining to speak in detail about their stance on the free speech issue, Mr Gonski and Professor Jacobs decided to go on the record and discuss their views.

“We are constrained by the law. But apart from that, someone speaking in the centre of Randwick (near the university campus) should be able to say the same thing on the university campus,” Professor Jacobs said.

Their joint belief that the level of speech freedom within the university should be equal to that outside leads their concern that the model free speech code for universities, recommended by former chief justice Robert French, may be too restrictive.

“We’re getting the French code looked at legally and put back to (the university) council. There is a bit of concern there is a diminution from what we actually stand for as a university,” Mr Gonski said.

The code was endorsed in principle at a meeting of the University Chancellors Council, of which all chancellors are members, in May. The meeting also asked three chancellors — the Australian National University’s Gareth Evans, the University of Queensland’s Peter Varghese and Mr French, who is chancellor of the University of Western Australia — to review concerns that it was too restrictive on speakers invited to the university.

The original French code allowed universities to refuse a platform to invited speakers whose views did not meet “scholarly standards”; for example, anti-vaxxers. The three chancellors have now recommended that speakers invited by the university community, including student groups, should not be able to be blocked solely for holding anti-scholarly views.

But even after this concession, the revised French code does not meet the level of speech freedom that exists outside the university because visiting speakers who are not invited but want to hire a university facility, for example, could still be blocked.

Still, Mr Gonski was cautious when asked whether UNSW would hire its main hall, the Clancy Auditorium, for an anti-vaxxer rally. He said it was a difficult question and would depend, in part, on other issues such as whether there was hate speech (which is restricted under Australian law).

Professor Jacobs said the fact someone expressed a view on a university campus did not mean the university endorsed the view. “Campus is a place for people to express all sorts of different views. Many of them will not be scholarly. Some of them will offend quite a lot of people. Some of them will be just patently ridiculous,” he said. “I don’t mind. I want people to be able to give those views and other people to be able to object.”

Professor Jacobs added that, in his mind, there was a question as to whether there should be a specific free speech standard for universities.

“Is that a good route to go down? If we are concerned about freedom of speech in Australia should this be looked at generically rather than picking off universities or other organisations?” he asked.

Mr Gonski said there did not need to be a standard approach to freedom of speech applying to all universities. “I have a strong view that you do not need an edict, a standard for all universities. Each of us universities have to do what we think is right,” he said.

Originally published here: https://www.theaustralian.com.au/higher-education/unsw-stands-up-for-fre...