Freedom of Speech in Higher Education

 In Education, General, Senate Speeches

Senator RENNICK (Queensland) (15 March 2021, 13:23): I rise in support of the Higher Education Support Amendment (Freedom of Speech) Bill 2020. I must say the word ‘freedom’ gets thrown around a lot. I sometimes think it’s thrown around without any thought for the true meaning of the significance of the word and its impact because of how hard it has been for us to get the freedoms that we have today and the sacrifices that have been made to obtain those freedoms.

When I hear the word ‘freedom’, I often go back to that movie of recent times, Braveheart, about William Wallace, who was so elegantly played by Mel Gibson. There’s a great scene at the end where William Wallace is being executed, and he yells out, ‘Freedom!’ There is a lot of criticism about whether the film is all correct or not, but what is true is that William Wallace was, indeed, executed in the name of what he thought was freedom. I’m going to read out to you the exact details of his death because I think it is worth remembering how hard fought for our freedoms have been and how hard we need to fight to make sure we keep them.

After he was captured, Wallace was transported to London where he was tried for treason and atrocities against civilians in war. He was then crowned with a garland of oak to suggest he was the king of outlaws. He responded to the treason charge: ‘I could not be a traitor to Edward, for I was never his subject.’ Following the trial, Wallace was taken from Westminster Hall east to the Tower of London. He was then stripped naked and dragged through the city at the heels of a horse. He was then hung, drawn and quartered. He was strangled by hanging but released while he was still alive. He was then emasculated. For those of you who don’t know what that is, it’s where you have your entire crown jewels removed. He was then eviscerated; he had his bowels removed. His bowels were then burned in front of him. He was then beheaded. His head was then dipped in tar and placed on a pike atop London Bridge where it was later joined by the heads of brothers John and Simon Fraser, fellow Scottish patriots. Wallace’s limbs were displayed separately in Newcastle, Berwick, Sterling and Perth.

A plaque was unveiled in 1956 and stands in a wall of St Bartholomew’s Hospital near the site of Wallace’s execution at Smithfield. It includes, in Latin, the words: ‘Dico tibi verum libertas optima rerum nunquam servili sub nexu vivito fili.’ In English that translates as: ‘I tell you the truth. Freedom is what is best. Sons, never live life like slaves.’ I think that is an incredibly inspiring story of the sacrifices that people have made throughout history in order to fight for freedom.

Nine years later, in the year of our Lord 1314, as was put so eloquently in the movie, a bloke by the name of Robert the Bruce went out and won that freedom. Whether it’s true or not, he’s quoted as saying, before he ran out to battle: ‘You have bled with Wallace, now bleed with me.’ Today, as we put this bill forward, I ask the people on this side of the chamber to bleed like Wallace and fight like Robert the Bruce to make sure that we stand up for academic freedom because without freedom of speech, without freedom of thought, we are nothing more than slaves.

I’m pleased to promote this bill because it will provide stronger protections for academic freedom and freedom of speech at our nation’s universities, something that seems to be lacking on today’s campuses around the nation and, indeed, the Western world. While this bill only applies to freedom of speech at universities, I think it’s something that we should look at in other spheres as well. I know out there in the world of social media today, there are a lot of digital lynch mobs that are more than happy to come along and abuse people, to the point where they’re actually afraid to say what they really think. There’s a lot of bullying going on there. In my view that’s just as big a threat to freedom of speech and freedom of thought as the suppression of free thought at universities.

Of course, we should also give a big shout out to Peter Ridd, who has fearlessly stood up for what he believes in, as well as Drew Pavlou who was kicked out of the University of Queensland for standing up for what he believed in, and, indeed, our own Craig Kelly, who was kicked off Facebook for standing up for what he believed in. We’re always up against the command and control tendencies of those who wield power. We must always make sure that those who don’t wield the power—

Senator McAllister interjecting—

Senator RENNICK: I’ll take that interjection, thanks, Senator McAllister. At the end of the day, having been in this chamber for almost two years, I actually think the bureaucrats wield a lot more power than the elected members of parliament do. You’ve only got to look at the RBA, which has autonomous control over the monetary policy, our currency. We have the Australian Research Council, which the law says is responsible for and has ultimate control over $3 billion and how that money is granted. We have the ABC, which has no independent review body for how it behaves. There are plenty of examples where the bureaucrats are basically unaccountable for their actions—and I forgot to include the universities in that. So I’m more than happy to stand by my assertion that where taxpayer dollars are being spent the bureaucrats are held to account.

In many cases that means we’re going to have to take back the idea of an independent statutory authority. Ultimately, at the end of the day, the bulwark of democracy is accountability and transparency. Whether we like it or not, bureaucrats aren’t elected. People may not like politicians, but we are elected and we are held to account for what we do. We are very transparent; we have to stand here in the chamber and stand up in front of the media and our constituents. It’s very important that we are held to account as well.

The purpose of the Higher Education Support Amendment (Freedom of Speech) Bill is to amend the Higher Education Support Act 2003, to repeal and replace the two references to free intellectual inquiry with references to freedom of speech and academic freedom, and to insert a definition of ‘academic freedom’. This bill gives effect to the recommendations from the 2019 independent review into freedom of speech in higher education which was undertaken by the Hon. Robert French, former Chief Justice of the High Court of Australia. This bill will provide a new definition of academic freedom that enshrines in law principles of freedom of expression. These are an essential part of life at our universities for both academic staff and students—as they were when we went to university.

This definition closely aligns with the definition recommended by the French review, with a minor technical modification recommended by the University Chancellors Council and developed in consultation with Mr French. This modification excludes one element: the freedom of academic staff, without constraint imposed by reason of their employment by the university, to make a lawful public comment on any issue in their personal capacities. That was part of the definition originally recommended by Mr French and included in his proposed model code. As part of the consultations on the proposed definition, it has been suggested that this element is more about freedom of speech than academic freedom and shouldn’t be conflated with a definition of academic freedom.

I recall when universities were once the bastion of freedom of thought and speech, and once drove political and social discourse. Now, courtesy of cancel culture, the far left, disguised as neo-Puritans, are busy trying to shut down debate under the guise of safe spaces and for fear of offending. A survey commissioned in 2019 asked students how they saw the current state of freedom of speech in universities. The survey included students of all political persuasions—39 per cent of respondents supported the ALP, 28 per cent supported the Greens, 14 per cent supported the coalition and 20 per cent were other or undecided. The results were concerning, to say the least: 41 per cent of students felt that they were sometimes unable to express their opinion at university; 31 per cent of students had been made to feel uncomfortable by a university teacher for expressing their opinion; 47 per cent of students felt more comfortable expressing their views on social media than at university; 59 per cent of students believed they were sometimes prevented from voicing their opinions on controversial issues by other students; and 82 per cent of students agreed that university students should be exposed to different views, even if those views were challenging or offensive—and 86 per cent of Greens-supporting students, 82 per cent of Labor-supporting students and 82 per cent of coalition-supporting students agreed with this statement.

In my home state of Queensland we have had the highly publicised drama involving Drew Pavlou at The University of Queensland. And in August last year the University of New South Wales media team deleted Twitter posts from one of its academics, now adjunct law professor and Human Rights Watch Australia director, Elaine Pearson, which drew an online backlash from foreign students. The University of New South Wales, after receiving a barrage of angry responses from Chinese students and state owned media responded with:

The opinions expressed by our academics do not always represent the views of UNSW.

We have a long & valued relationship with Greater China going back 60 years.

UNSW provides a welcome & inclusive environment & is proud to welcome students from over 100 countries.

Do we know what the offending tweet said?

Now is a pivotal moment to bring attention to the rapidly deteriorating situation in Hong Kong.

Fair dinkum. The central and allegedly most controversial element of the proposed amendments is the introduction of the following definition of ‘academic freedom’ in the legislation:

(a) the freedom of academic staff to teach, discuss, and research and to disseminate and publish the results of their research;

(b) the freedom of academic staff and students to engage in intellectual inquiry, to express their opinions and beliefs, and to contribute to public debate, in relation to their subjects of study and research;

(c) the freedom of academic staff and students to express their opinions in relation to the higher education provider in which they work or are enrolled;

(d) the freedom of academic staff to participate in professional or representative academic bodies

(e) the freedom of students to participate in student societies and associations;

(f) the autonomy of the higher education provider in relation to the choice of academic courses and offerings, the ways in which they are taught and the choices of research activities and the ways in which they are conducted.

The explanatory memorandum includes the following explanation:

The statutory definition in Item 4 closely aligns with the definition in the French Model Code but includes a minor technical modification recommended by the University Chancellors Council …

Professor Sally Walker, who is currently undertaking a review of the university sector’s implementation of the French Code, has advised that this approach is preferable. The freedom of academics and students to engage in intellectual inquiry, to express their opinions and to contribute to public debate are deeply connected with the role of an academic and the role of a university are key elements of academic freedom. However, this is quite different from an academic making a comment in their personal capacity. Any such comment is not connected with their role as an academic and is more appropriately considered to fit within the ambit of a broader social freedom of speech.

To quote from Brendan O’Neill, a UK columnist who himself has felt the wrath of universities:

It is undeniable that we live in a society where freedom of expression is in crisis. Whether we are being censored by the state, by self-styled guardians of correct-thinking, by mobs or by ourselves, we are being censored. And this matters. It matters because, at both the individual level and the social level, freedom of speech is essential to human flourishing.

Freedom of speech gives real power to the individual. It liberates us not only to express our own views – which is of course incredibly important – but also to listen to the views of everyone else and to use our mental and moral muscles to decide for ourselves if what they are saying is right or wrong. Freedom of speech is the foundation stone of moral autonomy. It demands that we take ourselves seriously, weigh things up, make moral judgements, and correct error as we find it. Censorship, by contrast, infantilises us, weakening our mental and moral muscles by inviting us to rely instead on the judgements of our superiors; on those who will decide on our behalf what we may see, what we may read, and what we should think.

To reflect for one more moment on those words of Wallace, he said: They can always take our lives but they can never take our freedom. I commend the bill to the Senate.

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