No decent campus curtails the free exchange of ideas

Justice French, we concur: universities are the last places where freedom of speech should be suppressed so readily. In an address reported yesterday, former High Court chief justice Robert French hints the attempt to shut down politically inconvenient speech on campus may meet a challenge invoking the Constitution’s implied freedom of communication. Free-spirited law students, take note. Unfortunately, universities have pandered to the intolerant Left, enabling a politically correct orthodoxy in which competing views are pathologised as “hate speech” akin to bodily harm. Designated victim groups are accorded “safe spaces” to shelter from the injurious thought of oppressor groups. Life is too messy and interesting to be reduced to such a crude ideology. Its narrow formula for “diversity” leaves little room for individual integrity or political dissent.

Psychologist Bettina Arndt has launched a university tour to critique claims of a rape crisis on campus. La Trobe University at first denied permission for the event, then relented. Rowdy protesters rebuffed Ms Arndt’s attempt at dialogue, seeking nothing less than to silence her. At the University of Sydney, student organisers were told they would have to pay for extra security, which proved ineffective against disruption. In Brisbane, the riot squad is on alert for Ms Arndt’s visit to the University of Queensland next week. By accepting the equation between speech and harm, and imposing security costs on student organisations, universities risk giving violent activists an effective veto over speakers who challenge the PC orthodoxy. So far, despite the difficulties, the Arndt tour has gone ahead, but the US practice of “no platforming” shows the trajectory. At the heart of Ms Arndt’s argument is the interpretation and validity of surveys of sexual assault. If she is right, university leaders have been complicit in the creation of an unnecessary climate of fear and gender suspicion on campus. This is precisely the kind of issue where intellectual honesty requires students to be exposed to competing arguments so they can make up their own minds.

Mr French puts it well: “The scholar of the university expects vigorous debate about his or her ideas and that colleagues and students can be pushed to re-examine their own. The creation of better citizens is a by-product of educating students. That is to say, people who can take their place in public civic discourse, help to form public values and public policy, and to choose the officials who manage public affairs. This is not just about creating future leaders but responsible contributors to civic life.”

The example of the US is by no means all negative. Which Australian institution will emulate the University of Chicago and prohibit trigger warnings and safe spaces? In 2016, new students were told: “You will find that we expect members of our community to be engaged in rigorous debate, discussion and even disagreement. At times this may challenge you and even cause discomfort … we do not cancel invited speakers because their topics might prove controversial, and we do not condone the creation of intellectual ‘safe spaces’ where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own.” Too right.

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