UNSW does free speech protection its way

UNSW is circulating a consultation draft of an academic freedom and freedom of speech code, which it thinks superior to the French Model Code about to be legislated by the Commonwealth Government

What UNSW says: “We therefore propose to adopt the Code, except where it offers less protection of freedom of speech than the UNSW position. Where that is the case it has been modified to reflect our position that freedom of speech at UNSW is no different to that elsewhere in Australia and is only limited by the law,” VC Ian Jacobs tells staff.

Sounds straightforward but Professor Jacobs is not just nailing his colours to the mast on principle, he is standing firm against the wishes of former education minister Dan Tehan.

Where this comes from: Last year Minister Tehan commissioned Sally Walker to assess how universities were going in implementing Robert French’s code. Professor Walker gave nine gold stars, 14 elephant stamps and four ticks to various university codes, but six “had policies that were not aligned.” Mr Tehan responded that “he strongly urged” the six to “take action” by year end.

To which UNSW replied, ““UNSW is totally committed to academic freedom and freedom of speech and our existing policies and procedures go further than the Model Code’s requirements, which impose certain limits,” (CMM December 9).

What happens next: With Labor signalling it will not oppose the bill, passage through the Senate seems certain.

And that might be that, unless Mr Tehan’s successor Alan Tudge wants to take UNSW to task. The reasons not to are obvious, a dispute with a university which declares itself in furious agreement with the broad purpose of the bill is a waste of political oxygen on an issue that most voters do not care about.

Unless of course the minister sees an opportunity in whatever the High Court decides in Ridd v James Cook University, a case seen by many, including coalition supporters, as a test of academic freedom.

If the court upholds the Federal Court ruling that JCU was within its rights to dismiss Dr Ridd for misconduct for his strong criticism of the university and some of its researchers, his supporters, including federal coalition members and senators, will demand the government act to protect academics who wish to speak-up but fear being sacked. And if the High Court finds for Dr Ridd, whatever its reasons, his supporters will demand Mr Tudge enforce  what is now his free speech legislation as is, to ensure no other academic has to go through his long legal process.