Sydney University will “thoughtfully” implement the principles of the campus free speech code suggested by the French report.
After initial reservations about the proposal, Vice-chancellor Michael Spence described the code on Wednesday as “a terrific thing, and the values it expresses are exactly the values we fight for”.
In a government-commissioned review, former high court justice Robert French found there was no free speech crisis at universities but proposed the code to strengthen protections around free academic expression.
While the code includes safeguards from discrimination, threats and humiliation, it states that there is no duty to protect staff and students from “feeling offended or shocked or insulted by the lawful speech of another”.
At the urging of Education Minister Dan Tehan, universities across Australia are considering adopting versions of the code. Some, such as the universities of Western Australia and Western Sydney, have given in-principle agreement.
The University of Melbourne released a free speech policy for the first time on Wednesday, saying it was a paramount value – as long as it did not undermine safety or people’s ability to participate in university activities.
Early last week, Dr Spence – whose institution was embroiled in a political controversy involving protests against author Bettina Arndt – said Sydney University was considering the code but argued the issue of self-censorship for fear of retribution was one that faced the entire community.
Mr Tehan responded with a veiled attack, saying universities were “burying their heads in the sand” by insisting it was not their problem.
In an interview with Nine Newspapers’ Please Explain podcast, available from Thursday afternoon, Dr Spence said the university’s lawyers were looking at the code to examine if its principles were already protected in university laws.
The next Sydney University Senate meeting in July will discuss whether to adopt the model code outright or embed its principles within the university’s existing framework to strengthen protections it already has in place.
“We still need the advice from the lawyers,” he said. “I doubt it will just be plonked in. Then, of course, you give lawyers endless work in the courts one day deciding how that impacts on our [enterprise bargaining agreement] or whatever it might be. It will be thoughtfully adopted at the University of Sydney, yes.”
Dr Spence also said there were only two reasons the university would cancel a speaker who had been invited by students or academics; if police warned of public order and safety issues, or if the content would be unlawful.
Universities should be places where any view could be expressed, he said. “We fight very hard at the university to make sure that’s true of us as an institution.”
The University of Melbourne on Wednesday released a freedom of speech policy that was begun before the French review. But it came with limitations.
“The University does not support the exercise of freedom of speech when the exercise undermines the capacity of individuals to participate fully in the University, or jeopardises the physical safety of individuals, or unreasonably disrupts activities or operations of the University.”
Source: The Sydney Morning Herald