While the mission of Heterodox Academy is focused on the threats to viewpoint diversity and free expression on American campuses, in November we explored the emergence of parallel trends in the United Kingdom. This phenomenon has also reached Australia, where a May 2016 report by the Institute of Public Affairs (IPA) highlights the extent to which free speech has come under threat at ninety-eight percent of Australian universities.

Below is a summary of IPA’s methodology, key findings, and examples of university actions that affect their free speech ratings.

Methodology

IPA’s Free Speech on Campus Audit 2016 is the first systematic review of the state of intellectual freedom on Australian campuses. The report’s methodology was based on the practices used to assess free speech on American and British campuses, specifically those employed by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education’s (FIRE) annual Spotlight on Speech Codes and Spiked!’s Free Speech University Rankings.

The IPA report only considered policies that were applicable to students. A range of university policies, including but not limited to university by-laws, student codes, conduct and misconduct policies, bullying and harassment policies, Internet and social media policies, and student guides were analyzed.  This review considered reports that documented organized attempts to prevent individuals from speaking on campus, student protests, and proposals to ban student clubs. While the review focused on actions that have taken place over the past five years, and some actions have likely gone unreported, the included incidents provide a basis to assess the free speech climate at major Australian universities.

Based on its policies and actions, each university was assigned a rating of red, amber, or green according to the below criteria:

  • Red: Indicates an institution has policies that actively restrict free speech on campus and/or the institution has taken action that limits the diversity of ideas on campus.
  • Amber: Indicates that an institution either has policies that could be interpreted in a manner that restricts speech and/or has had unsuccessful actions taken either by administrators or students that attempted to limit the diversity of ideas on campus.
  • Green: Indicates that an institution has no policy and has taken no action that threatens free expression on campus.

Key Findings

The findings from the IPA report reveal that freedom of speech is coming under serious threat at Australian universities. Out of forty-two universities in Australia, thirty-three (79 percent) have received a red ranking; eight (19 percent) have received an amber ranking; and only one (2 percent) has received a green ranking.

Source: Free Speech on Campus Audit 2016, Institute of Public Affairs, May 2016, p. 8.

A Closer Look at Policies and Actions of Concern

Policies

The IPA report focuses on three types of university policies that restrict free speech on campus:

  1. Harassment and bullying policies: There are many university policies intended to prevent harassment and bullying that place overly broad restrictions on speech by removing a “reasonable person” standard and by lowering the threshold to speech that offends or hurts individuals’ feelings.
  2. Internet usage and social media policies: Such policies were introduced for the purpose of preventing “cyber-bullying” but employ vague and wide-ranging language that can restrict students’ free speech both in regard to university-related matters and to students’ internet and social media usage in general.
  3. Language guidelines or toolkits: Universities have been developing language guidelines and toolkits that instruct students to avoid words such as “man-made,” “founding fathers,” and “mankind,” and provide parameters around the appropriate discussion of Australian history.

Red Actions

Examples include Prime Minister Tony Abbott canceling his visit to Deakin University to avoid protestors, Flinders University academics’ rejection of hosting a $4 million research center run by Danish professor Bjørn Lomborg, and two students being expelled from student housing at James Cook University due to a religiously offensive music competition skit.

Amber Actions

Examples include student protestors disrupting a lecture by former federal Liberal MP Sophie Mirabella at Melbourne University, a dispute at the University of Sydney over hosting a lecture by the Dalai Lama, and The University of Sydney Union’s threat to deregister the Sydney University Evangelical Union from the Clubs & Societies program over the latter’s requirement that all members must make a declaration of faith in Jesus Christ.

Green Actions

No green actions are provided in the report, as a green rating reflects an absence of restrictions on free speech.

Conclusion

The threat to viewpoint diversity on campus is no longer a local issue, but rather it has extended to three continents in just the past few years. In order to contain and reverse such trends, universities should adopt more balanced policies that protect its students from harassment and discrimination while encouraging the free exchange of ideas. Our new Viewpoint Diversity Reading List is one way to facilitate greater understanding and perspective sharing. Given the pervasiveness of these issues, the international community can share resources and look to one another while developing best practices to address these challenges.


Opinions expressed are those of the author(s). Publication does not imply endorsement by Heterodox Academy or any of its members. We welcome your comments below. Feel free to challenge and disagree, but please try to model the sort of respectful and constructive criticism that makes viewpoint diversity most valuable. Comments that include obscenity or aggression are likely to be deleted.