Universities united to strengthen freedom of expression policies
Policies protecting free speech in universities are stronger in all Australian institutions than two years ago and public reports on academic freedom are now due annually, according to the federal government.
Federal Education Minister Alan Tudge said on Wednesday that Australia’s 41 universities had aligned freedom of speech with a “model code” recommended by a review of freedom of expression in Australian higher education institutions in 2019.
He came as the High Court of Australia rejected an appeal the sacking of James Cook University marine scientist Dr Peter Ridd, whose job ended in 2018 after challenging a colleague’s views on climate change and the Great Barrier Reef.
The university had argued that Ridd had been fired for violating its code of conduct requiring respect for the legal rights of others and obligations of confidentiality.
The court concluded that Ridd’s right to free speech was not limited by the code of conduct’s requirements for respect and comity. But he also found that the dismissal was justified because certain expressions of opinion were unrelated to Ridd’s academic expertise.
The case proceeded on an all-or-nothing basis. For this reason, the court considered that the dismissal was justified.
As part of the adoption of the government review recommendations, universities say they will regularly report on freedom of expression in their annual reports.
Tudge said in a statement that both developments – stricter policies and public reporting – were important in protecting free speech and academic freedoms for students and academics.
“If universities are not places of free and robust expression, then their very purpose is compromised,” he said. “You cannot advance knowledge without questioning existing orthodoxies and risking offending yourself in the process. ”
The code supports reasonable and proportionate measures to prevent anyone from using legitimate speech that a reasonable person would consider, in the circumstances, to be likely to humiliate or intimidate others.
But that does not extend to protecting one person from feeling offended, shocking or insulting another’s legitimate speech.