Campus free speech: easier demanded than delivered

Whatever emerges from the French inquiry on campus free speech, University of Sydney general counsel Richard Fisher sets out what may well be universities response.

At a conference organised by APN Educational Media, Mr Fisher outlined his university’s obligations, to encourage “dissemination, advancement, development and application of knowledge informed by free enquiry as well as the participation in public discourse,” but also its need to ensure the “safety and wellbeing of staff and students as well as visitors to the campus.”

“I accept that that the balancing act may result in the university refusing its consent to or precluding an invited visitor coming onto a campus. That decision might be made having regard to the possibility that the presence of the visitor may cause such controversy and disruption that it puts safety and wellbeing of others on the campus at unacceptable risk,” Mr Fisher said.

Which is pretty much where the University of Western Australia ended up in September after Chancellor (and now the government’s campus free speech reviewer) Robert French and Vice Chancellor Dawn Freshwater addressed conflicting obligations. An off-campus group had booked university space for a speech by a US critic of transgender medicine, which outraged members of the campus community. “There is an ongoing task to be undertaken within the university about the development of workable principles which strike a balance between the values of respect for human dignity on the one hand and freedom of opinion and expression on the other, the wrote.

Days later Professor Freshwater told the university community the booking was cancelled. “The university holds firm on the principles of freedom of expression and maintains its position that it does not wish to set a precedent for the exclusion of objectionable views from the campus. However, in this case the event hirers could not meet their obligations of the venue hire contract, providing no confidence that UWA could ensure safety on campus.” (CMM August 20).


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