Ted Heath, a former British Prime Minister, once said something like  – a diplomat is someone who thinks twice, before saying nothing.

Some of the most popular leaders I’ve seen can say nothing without even thinking.

These days there are advantages to being a small target.

I believe the recent anxiety about free speech is related to technology-driven changes in publication and censorship. It’s also related to funding and consumer power. Working out what has changed will help us handle the challenges.

Recently people have worried that universities have stepped away from their roles as forums for fearless debate. But the French report and ministerial comments have driven a renewed and sector-wide commitment to academic freedoms – the freedom to investigate whatever you wish and the freedom to say whatever the law allows on campus.

It’s not just the university part of the problem that I find interesting. The freedom of speech conundrum is affecting all of society and universities have a role in debating the issue, rather than being the issue. Though universities are part of it, so I’ll come to that at the end.

The issue is interesting because, like good diplomats, every citizen now thinks about self-censorship whenever publishing on social media. I do wonder how this will affect the flow of new and challenging ideas, and on the operation of democracies.

Things have changed. In the past the world was dominated by a few really influential publishers. Media ownership and licences were carefully controlled, few commentators were anonymous, and defamation laws hung in the background ensuring a degree of accuracy and civility.

In the past, the establishment was the big player in censorship. State censorship soon got a bad name because it was often exposed as a self-serving way to maintain power. Though perhaps some past repressions were genuinely intended to protect individuals and society. Be that as it may – no one today wants or expects the Spanish Inquisition.

Battles have raged for millennia. In 399BC Socrates was convicted and sentenced to death for his incessant questioning that some felt corrupted the youth, others were crucified, there were even genuine witch hunts, and many “dangerous” ideas, particularly those related to individual freedoms, including powerful forces like sexuality, met with official resistance from the state or church.

But everything has changed now because everyone, including anonymous trolls, can try their hand at publishing and censorship (or “cancelling”). It was hoped that the new freedoms of the internet and relaxing of control would lead to broader creativity and happiness, but in some places it has turned ugly. The contest will be familiar to anyone who enjoyed the TV show Get Smart – it is not always a fight between control and freedom, sometimes it is about Control and Chaos.

Chaos has been on the rise. One sees it in the proliferation of bizarre conspiracy theories, in climate change denial, discussions about equality relating to gender or race, discussions on major religions like Islam, or superpowers, like China, and also in issues that touch on child raising, such as vaccinations, and even the teaching of language through phonics.

One can expect polarised views in relation to all these topics, with active trolling, and attempts to silence those putting forward even the most benignly moderate information. Young women and minority voices can attract particularly high levels of trolling on-line. Emotions run high and the forces of chaos can be very powerful at both promoting views and silencing critics.

I remain unsure about whether more control is the answer. Perhaps as Brandeis suggested – the remedy for false speech is more speech, not censorship.

But now let us come back to universities and the part they play.

The French review carefully considered whether there were restrictions to free speech on Australian university campuses and found no evidence of a crisis. Universities do not aim to censor their staff or students or those who are invited onto campuses. They do insist on civil and inclusive debate. Codes of Conduct regulate this but if things get heated it can be difficult to draw lines in the right place and sometimes mistakes are made. Some events have been cancelled due to pressure and recently at my university a Tweet was deleted by someone who probably worried they ha made a mistake in posting something inflammatory. But in general, mistakes, when they occur are acknowledged and are quickly corrected.

What’s more the majority of students in Australia aren’t studying politically ideological subjects, but are enrolled in vocationally oriented degrees, such as engineering, science, medicine, business or law. So it would be rather surprising if our universities were prioritising extreme ideologies of ‘political correctness gone mad’ and were systematically opposed to free speech.

So why does this perception persist?

It persists for some very good reasons.

There is a concern that now that all the world’s a stage and universities are active social media publishers, universities are in danger of becoming so diplomatic that they think twice before saying nothing. People worry that universities are easily intimidated and are now no longer fearless exponents of truth, especially of truths that are inconvenient – to us!

What truths might those be?

Well, people have noticed that universities, though they insist they are fiercely independent and legally self-governing, no longer have secure and independent funding – we are increasingly beholden to market forces, including the requirement to supplement our research funding via industry support, international student fees and private philanthropy. To be clear universities accept funding according to rules that ensure freedom to publish and exclude foreign interference, but the issue relates to repeated short term funding that may not be renewed if relationships sour.

So people naturally ask whether we are easily intimidated and whether we will allow, let alone, protect our students and staff if they voice controversial views. We are criticised from both sides. Commentators on the right feel that universities would never give a platform to views expressed by people like President Trump, and those on the left feel that universities will readily cave in to the interests of funders from business and industry. Both sides may question our relationships with foreign governments in the Middle East or China.

But I think there is an answer. By being a forum for debate and not holding or promoting political views as universities, universities can and do support free speech and independent research. It’s as simple as that. We just have to hold firm and communicate that more broadly. We don’t hold views as institutions, we are a forum for academic debate.

Others may ask a different question – if universities are now publishing on social media, what is their editorial policy? Are they balanced? Will they give equal voice to a professor of public health and an anti-vaxxer, to an evolutionary biologist and a creationist, to a climate scientist and a climate change denier?

Here they will not. Universities may well host such debates (though many argue against doing that), but in their own publishing universities tend to prioritise promoting the expert work led by academic staff. And the staff will be appointed and promoted by reference to global norms of performance. These international norms are now very clear and relate to measures of research and teaching quality. The word professor means something. It is not an honorary title.

One obvious problem remains.

Real freedom depends on independent funding. If I return to my own area of molecular biology, I can attest that no one has ever interfered in my work, except in legitimate terms of requiring me to maintain safety, but also, importantly in terms of funding. What I study is restricted by what funding I can attract.

I’m happy with this provided the funding agencies are independent. The Haldane principle is that research funding should be determined by expert peer review not by the political parties of the day. There is much more to say here because, of course, society, as led by politicians, has a role in determining the amounts of funding allocated to various challenges. But the exact award of funding to individuals or institutions is best left in the hands of impartial peer review committees. The Australian Research Council and National Health and Medical Research Council do this very well and I wish more funding were channelled through these agencies.

People wonder why universities always bang on about funding, but it is partly because security of funding is intimately connected to academic freedom. At an individual level, of course, tenure was always designed to ensure academic freedom.  It is also notable that at their foundation Oxford colleges were set up with landed estates that ensure they have independent and secure income in perpetuity. In the US private universities like Harvard and Stanford have amassed large endowments that can help them resist outside influence and weather interruptions to support.

But in Australia our universities, especially the many newer ones, have not built up endowments of the same magnitude. But as public institutions we do have government funding for our teaching that is reasonably reliable. Making overall university funding and academic tenure as secure as possible is arguably the best strategy available to support academic freedom.

So I hope that everyone across our world that cares will continue fearlessly tweeting, blogging and voting so that our universities continue to attract core public support from society and can remain forums for open research and debate that advances knowledge in expected and unexpected directions – because increasing knowledge is ultimately in the interests of society.

(And here’s a footnote – some of you will have noticed that I started with ‘Ted Heath said something like – ‘a diplomat is someone who…’.”

The actual quote is ‘a diplomat is a man who…’. I changed the wording to avoid beginning with what would have been an outdated negative gendered message and a distraction. It does strike me as ironic that I sort of censored my own article on free speech but I hope that by carefully choosing my words I actually improved it).

Prof. Merlin Crossley

Deputy Vice-Chancellor Academic, UNSW


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