New University Policy on Free Speech – Why It’s an Important Conversation To Have

Last week, the University of Melbourne council approved a policy outlining the University’s commitment to protecting free speech on campus. The policy can be found here.

The Freedom of Speech Policy provides a framework that serves the University and the public by promoting “critical and free enquiry, informed intellectual discourse and public debate within the University and in the wider society.”

This is following the findings of the Hon. Robert French’s 2018 review into free speech at universities, triggered by the Federal education minister, Dan Tehan.

I thought I’d take this opportunity to talk to you about why free speech and freedom of expression is important to our union and our campus.

Arguments and discussions about freedom of speech have been a hashed out again and again over the past year following several high-profile student protests at campuses across the country. During this period of heightened media coverage on this issue, UMSU has consistently stated that the idea that free speech is under threat is misconceived and based on misrepresentations of the actions of students, staff, and democratically elected student organisations. Much of what has been touted as a “crisis of free speech” in the past year has been alarmist and manufactured.

UMSU has a rich and successful history of protecting the rights of students to freedom of speech.  This is a critical component of achieving UMSU’s stated purposes: promoting political association on campus. We regard the ability to organise events and participate in activism, especially in forms of protest, as intrinsic to the running of our organisation and the broader health and diversity of our campuses. This exercise of freedom of political speech, whether it targets the administration of the University of Melbourne, how UMSU is run, or is aimed at boarder educational and social issues, is at the core of UMSU’s ability to represent the entire student body.

It is in the ability to mobilise campaigns on campus without fear of sanction or persecution that allows us to meet our aims and reach success in providing a better experience for students – from work, to study, to travel, to home. We are glad that the policy introduced by the University recognises and enshrines the right to protest as a ‘manifestation of freedom of speech’. Protest on campus should not be regulated or require permission.

We do, however, believe that policy needs to be met with cultural change on campus that promotes students’ voices, collectivism, and protest when needed.  UMSU does not advocate for a conception of free speech that amounts to the unfettered right to do or say anything, anywhere and at any time.  UMSU welcomes robust political debate – we do not support conversations about freedom of speech that are aimed at silencing political views that are different to our own.

Unfortunately, the conversation about of free speech is often marred by hate speech and bigotry; where the notion of freedom of speech has often been used by groups to defend their capacity to espouse views that are harmful to individuals based on who they are.  To be clear, freedom of speech does not mean freedom to be racist, freedom to be sexist or freedom to be homophobic.

Above all, UMSU believes that the University’s intellectual and cultural climate should be inclusive and safe for all students – and believe that the only place where intervention is required is when the conduct is presents an active risk to the safety of the student body.

Equally, UMSU believes that we all – students and the University – have an obligation to ensure that freedom of speech is real for students.  This means that we need to ensure that freedom of speech does not just mean that we continue to hear the same voices over and over again; that those voices that have not been heard or face barriers to expression are promoted and supported.

The University is governed by various policies that outline the acceptable behaviour of students and principles of freedom of expression. We are now also governed by a policy that outlines freedom of speech.

UMSU is concerned, however, with news that the government is further investigating legislative provisions that change the nature of free speech on campuses – and that the government and universities are engaging in this discussion without students.

We believe that any additional legislative intervention to impose “protective rules” on universities will paradoxically have the effect of limiting freedom of speech and academic freedom. Universities are centres of research and are grounded in a long tradition of rigour and evidence. Combating ignorant and baseless hate speech should be among the fundamental objects of higher education. Consequently, any interventions which threaten universities’ capacity to counter these forms of speech are ultimately more likely to achieve the very opposite to protecting freedom of expression and intellectual inquiry.

Molly Willmott

UMSU President