Parliament has passed new laws to strengthen freedom of speech protections at Australian universities.
The Higher Education Support Amendment (Freedom of Speech) Bill 2020 (pdf) amends the existing Higher Education Support Act 2003 by providing a clear definition of “academic freedom.” It also replaces the use of “free intellectual inquiry” with the terms “freedom of speech” and “academic freedom.”
“Universities are places for critical thinking, debate and challenging ideas, and they must be places that also protect free speech, even when what is being said may be unpopular or challenging,” Federal Education Minister Alan Tudge said in a statement. “The passing of this Bill requires universities to uphold these fundamental principles on campuses across Australia.”
The bill follows former High Court Chief Justice Robert French’s recommendations after leading an independent review into freedom of speech in higher education in 2018.
French concluded that claims of a freedom of speech crisis in Australian universities were “not substantiated,” however cautioned of many rules, codes, and policies “capable of eroding the fundamental freedom of speech” that was in place.
He then drafted a Model Code that supports academic freedom, freedom of speech and institutional autonomy as its three core principles.
“The government considers that adoption of the French model code is the most effective means to ensure Australia’s higher education providers are supported to uphold freedom of speech and academic freedom, protecting Australia’s reputation for quality higher education,” former Education Minister Dan Tehan told parliament.
However, the French Model Code has not been taken up uniformly by Australian universities.
In December last year, Professor Sally Walker reviewed the Code’s adoption by universities around the country and found of the 33 institutions that implemented the code, only nine were fully aligned to the code. Another 18 mainly were or partly aligned, while six universities were not aligned at all.
Conservative Academics, Activists Welcome the Legislation
However, conservative academics have welcomed the legislation. Marine scientist Peter Ridd said in a Facebook post that this was a major step in “the battle to stop our universities trampling on academic freedom of speech.”
He said the move would help bolster the rights of academics to speak out and express opinions on any controversial issues.
“Perhaps even more useful is the mere fact that the Commonwealth government is doing this at all,” Ridd told The Epoch Times. “It puts the universities on notice … [and they] can be in no doubt that the government has a problem with them.”
Ridd was unfairly dismissed from James Cook University after he voiced his views on the Great Barrier Reef, which go against mainstream science, and criticised the work of his colleagues and science institutions.
“There ultimately needs to be a cultural change at universities, which must encourage the return of centrist and right-wing academics, to improve the serious problem of lack of genuine diversity of views,” he said. “Universities are preoccupied with perceived problems of diversity regarding race and gender but are untroubled by their lack of genuine intellectual diversity.”
“But this legislation is an excellent step in the right direction.”
Last year, student activist Drew Pavlou was also unfairly suspended from the University of Queensland (UQ) after criticising its ties with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
Pavlou actively supported demonstrations in 2020, calling for the freedom of Hong Kong. He sought a court order for protection over threats he received due to his activism. Afterwards, he was hit with a two-year suspension by the university.
Pavlou described the suspension as the university’s attempt to “silence him.”
Appeals made against the suspension were then quashed, drawing scrutiny from the public and the media for their relationship with the CCP.
Pavlou has since been allowed to return to class this year but told Neo Kosmos, “I will not let up on my activism, and I will not keep quiet.”
Professor Andrew Goldsmith from Flinders University wrote to The Australian calling the Drew Pavlou incident a “troubling reminder of how fragile freedom of speech has become at our leading universities.”