Universities united on strengthening free speech policies

By Jackson Graham

Thursday October 14, 2021

Alan Tudge
Policies protecting free speech at universities are more robust across all Australian institutions than two years ago, says the federal government. Alan Tudge. (AAP Image/Lukas Coch)

Policies protecting free speech at universities are more robust across all Australian institutions than two years ago and public reports on academic freedom are now due yearly, the federal government says. 

Federal education minister Alan Tudge said on Wednesday that all 41 Australian universities had aligned free speech with a “model code” recommended by a government-commissioned review of freedom of speech in Australian higher education providers in 2019. 

It came as Australia’s High Court dismissed an appeal of the sacking of former James Cook University marine scientist Dr Peter Ridd, whose employment was ended in 2018 after he challenged a colleagues’ views on climate change and the Great Barrier Reef.

The university had argued that Ridd was fired for breaching its code of conduct requiring respect for the legal rights of others and confidentiality obligations. 

The court found Ridd’s right to freedom of expression was not constrained by the code of conduct’s requirements for respect and courtesy. But it also found that the sacking was justified because some expressions of opinion were unrelated to Ridd’s academic expertise. 

The case was run on an all-or-nothing basis. Because of this, the court found the sacking was justified. 

As part of adopting recommendations from the government review, universities say they will regularly report on freedom of speech through their annual reports. 

Tudge said in a statement that the two developments — stronger policies and public reporting — were significant for protecting free speech and academic freedoms for students and academics.

“If universities are not places for free, robust speech, then their very purpose is jeopardised,” he said. “You cannot advance knowledge without challenging existing orthodoxies, and risk causing offence in the process.” 

The code supports reasonable and proportionate measures to prevent any person from using lawful speech which a reasonable person would regard, in the circumstances, as likely to humiliate or intimidate other persons. 

But it does not extend to protecting a person from feeling offended or shocked or insulted by the lawful speech of another.

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