French review of campus free speech released

Education Minister Dan Tehan responds by saying not much

The education minister commissioned the review from Robert French last year among concerns that conservatives were being denied opportunities to speak at universities. However, Mr French finds, “claims of a freedom of speech crisis on Australian campus are not substantiated.”

Call for a voluntary code: The former chief justice of the High Court and present chancellor of the University of Western Australia recommends universities voluntarily adopted; “umbrella principles” “operationalised in a code applicable to cases in which freedom of speech or academic freedom may be an issue.’’

“As a non-statutory code it would be applied to guide the exercise of powers and discretions, formal and informal, when their breadth allows for its application. Essentially, its purpose is to effectively restrain the exercise of over-broad powers to the extent that they would otherwise be adversely applied to freedom of speech and academic freedom without proper justification.”

What’s in it: The proposed code includes;

* restricting staff and student freedom of speech on the basis of law, and, “the reasonable and proportionate regulation of conduct necessary to the discharge of the university’s teaching and research

* giving students the right to know the content of courses but not precluding staff from including material, “on the ground that it may offend or shock” students

* universities refusing permission to speakers whose content is likely to be unlawful, fall below scholarly standards, and “prejudice the fulfilment by the university of its duty to foster the wellbeing of staff and students

* visiting speakers paying for security

* not refusing visitors the right to speak or placing conditions on their visit, “solely on the basis of the content of the proposed speech

An underwhelmed response: Mr Tehan released the review Saturday, with what reads like underwhelming enthusiasm, although The Australian newspaper was well-informed to talk-up its contents.

The minister made clear in a brief statement he is not committed to Mr French’s proposal for amendments to the Higher Education Suppport Act and the HE Standards, “to distinguish freedom of speech and academic freedom and to define academic freedom by reference to generally accepted elements.”

However, Mr Tehan said he is writing to higher education providers, “to urge them to carefully consider Mr French’s recommendations.”

In accepting Mr French’s call for a code, Mr Tehan described the review as, “an important contribution to the higher education sector’s reflection on and management of issues of free speech and academic freedom.”

In fact, what Mr French has delivered is a comprehensive guide to the vast and complex issue of what can and cannot be said on campus and how the rights of all staff, students and visitors are best respected and protected.

He and his team reviewed policies and practice in Australian and international universities, examined how the law has dealt with a mass of complex and contentious circumstances and comprehensively consulted institutions and interest groups to reach conclusions.

The French report will disappoint any who hoped it would give the government reason to direct universities on how they should manage their own affairs.


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