Free Speech in the University

Free Speech in the University


A few years ago, Vice-Chancellor Ingrid Moses declared UNE to be an ‘open’ university, and enumerated several ways in which ‘open’ was to be understood. For a long time, however, government-imposed and locally adopted practices have cramped the style of universities, especially as they endeavour to be truly ‘open’. As a political scientist, my focus is on democracy. A democratic state is founded on a body of citizens who are autonomous, and accorded the full dignity of their humanity in equal measure. They are free to the extent that their freedom does not encroach on the like freedoms of others. They are held to own the government that rules over them, and have the right to choose their rulers. They also are able to take as big a part in governing themselves as is practical. Democracy implies that no government is good enough to rule indefinitely, so each government is held to be temporary, and subject to revision or replacement by the citizens. We insist on having an opposition to help ‘keep the government honest’, and to prepare a team ready to take over as the alternative government.

Among the bulwarks of a democracy is a society that allows people to act freely, and to associate freely with others. The chief defence against tyranny is the existence of groups, associations and societies, and even the meeting of people in casual groups on street corners or in coffee shops. In such company people are free to talk about anything, and often enough, to criticize the government of the day.



In the original democracy of ancient Greece, part of the lifeblood of democracy was bound up in the notion of parrhesia, the ability to speak about anything and everything. There were no libel laws, and that of course could cause problems. It is right that we have them, because lies about people can cause great damage, ruining reputations and inflicting personal hurt. In ancient Athens, malicious gossip about the saintly but often misunderstood philosopher, Socrates, probably led to his execution by the state. (We should also note that modern libel laws are often exploited by the rich and powerful to crush all questioning of their activities.)

Yet being party to the government of our country, we all have an interest in discussing our politicians, and learning from each other about their activities and about the opinions our fellow citizens hold about them. Governments often fear the views of those they govern, and sometimes try to quell the desire of people to gossip about their leaders. That way lies the path to tyranny. It would be an exaggeration to say that we have approached tyranny in this country, but we have had our share of miscreant behaviour among our politicians.

It would have been good if those ministers of the former Labor government of New South Wales who had engaged in corrupt behaviour had been talked about more openly. If more people had known about their tendency to cheat, it may have made it less likely they would get away with it at the time.


The Importance of Dissent

The Howard federal government took some policy decisions that were highly questionable. We all know now that the excuse for America’s invasion of Iraq was based on a lie, and our government, which followed them, knew it was a lie, because their own advisers told them so. There was also the case when they denigrated asylum seekers for allegedly throwing their children overboard from the leaky vessel in which they were travelling. They continued to perpetuate the falsehood even after they knew that the report of ‘children overboard’ had been a mistake. There were many other instances of questionable decision-making, and the Howard government systematically tried to stop people from criticizing, or even discussing, their activities. This

sorry story was meticulously documented in a book by Clive Hamilton and Sarah Maddison called Silencing Dissent. Yet given what democracy says about the contingent nature of government, expressing dissent is a vital part of having a democratic community.

When democrats say that their preferred society rests on a multiplicity of different groups and associations, universities emerge as among the most important institutions independent of government. This should be fairly obvious, because the very nature of the university is to evolve new ideas, to question old ones and where appropriate, replace them. At a more intense level — to a higher degree — the university should generate the very kind of open, questioning discussion that our democracy requires in the wider community. This intensity may result in sharper criticism that, even without malice, may wound and harm reputations. As long as criticism is not personal attack, penetrating criticism is the hallmark of what a university does. When I was a classics student, I was astonished at the number of times scholars, in criticizing others’ work, would say that this or that interpretation was ‘absurd’ (stupid?). Clearly scholarship requires developing thick skins. Thick skin is needed for the openness of a university that engages in the cooperative search for truth, an idea at least as old as Plato. His ‘dialectic’ meant that the propositions people put up should be tested with questioning, and replaced by better understandings until even better interpretations were supplied. This dialectic serves as a model for democracy itself, emulated in the conversation between government and opposition forces.


The Purpose of Universities

Plato founded the first ‘university’, the Academy, in ancient Athens. Its sole purpose beyond the obvious education of the young was the search for truth. This has been at the centre of university life ever since, at least till Australian universities hit their crisis in the Dawkins ‘reforms’. The purpose of the reform was on the face of it noble — to pave the way for people from all walks of life to enter university study. Yet the Hawke government, of which John Dawkins was a member, promoted a new type of academic elitism based on economic prosperity. Removing a former Labor government’s free tuition policy, they argued that graduates were likely to acquire positions with salaries higher than most other jobs, and so the user had to pay for the individual privilege, subsidized where necessary by repayable student loans. The older Australian universities were established at the time our colonies were seeking independence, and the undoubted aim was to provide a social benefit: to build up an educated population ready to found vigorous, self-governing states. The Hawke government caused a switch to private endeavour that undermined the idea of an educated society, even of ‘the clever country’ that Hawke crudely wanted to promote.

At the same time they forced universities into a close relationship with Australian business, abolished the independent funding body, the Commonwealth Tertiary Education Commission, and brought universities under close government control. We were told that whether we liked it or not, the university was a business that had to be managed along business lines. We do not deny the importance of business to our economic health, but anyone can see that the business of business is the quest for profit, which is more than likely to be at odds with the objective search for truth. Research funding was tied to national benefit, more often than not meaning benefit to the government of the day that defined ‘national objectives’. Research proposals falling outside the government’s interests were ridiculed in parliament.

The consequence of government-enforced business management in universities was to undermine open-ended free enquiry, and it constricted discussion about management practices. We were in danger of becoming a ‘closed’ university. The very thought of denying appointments to people who are outspoken in criticism, or who compose satirical verses gently obscured in the Latin language, is an outrageous contradiction of the nature of a university. The epidemic has been long and widespread. In 2000 a book by Melbourne academics called Why Universities Matter was accepted for publication by Melbourne University Press, but was then suppressed by the University’s management. It was a foolish move, because their very action provoked other publishers to queue up to get the book. It was snapped up by Allen & Unwin. Two of the authors in that book, Simon Marginson and Stuart McIntyre, reminded us that the universities are civic institutions with responsibilities not only to their own internal communities and the government of the day, but also to the wider community, regardless of the political currents flowing at any one time.

The rebirth of Nucleus in its new spelling is much to be welcomed. It is my hope that it will engender a renewed spirit of open discussion and informed, constructive criticism in the University.


- Prof. Graham Maddox

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