No decent campus curtails the free exchange of ideas

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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Labor ‘dragging out’ family court reform

Attorney-General Christian Porter has accused Labor of dragging out an inquiry into the government’s family courts restructure for political purposes.
Attorney-General Christian Porter has accused Labor of dragging out an inquiry into the government’s family courts restructure for political purposes.

Attorney-General Christian Porter has accused Labor of dragging out an inquiry into the government’s family courts restructure for political purposes, which are “not at all in the best interest of Australian families”.

In a letter to opposition legal ­affairs spokesman Mark Dreyfus, Mr Porter said a 236-day inquiry into the government’s legislation to merge the Family Court and lower-level Federal Circuit Court was “completely extraordinary and excessive”.

Of the 251 clauses in the main bill, only 60 were new or substantively changed, and previous ­inquiries had been conducted in shorter time frames, including ­inquiries into key counter-terrorism and social security legislation, he said.

Labor and crossbench senators have referred the bill to the Senate’s legal and constitutional ­affairs committee with an April 15 deadline for reporting.

However, Mr Porter wants the new, merged Federal Circuit and Family Court of Australia to be ­operational by January 1.

The Coalition used its numbers on the committee to bring forward the reporting date to November 26, which it said would still allow enough time for hearings in Sydney, Brisbane, Adelaide, Perth and Townsville.

However, Labor obtained advice from the Deputy Clerk of the Senate that even if the committee concluded its report by that date, the bill would not be available for debate until the Senate’s April 15 deadline for reporting.

Mr Dreyfus has argued the later reporting date would allow the committee time to consider a report by the Australian Law Reform Commission into the family law system, which is due March 31, and stakeholders enough time to respond to the significant changes.

But in his letter, Mr Porter said the structure of the family courts was specifically excluded from the ALRC inquiry, and any recommendations it made in relation to court processes could be more easily implemented in the new, simplified court structure.

He said two key stakeholders, the Law Council of Australia and Australian Bar Association, had been provided with early drafts of the legislation in mid-July to allow them time to consider it — although in the past the Law Council had managed to respond to proposed new foreign fighters laws within nine days.

Mr Porter said the April 15 timing appeared “somewhat politically motivated”, because it would mean the government would be unable to ensure passage of the bill before the election.

He said multiple reviews over the past decade, including those commissioned by Labor, had recommended structural reform of the federal family law courts, and the government’s proposed reforms would improve efficiency, reduce backlogs and drive faster and cheaper resolution of disputes for Australian families.

“It would appear that the delays now being sought in respect of the committee process are designed to delay the government’s proposed reforms beyond the intended commencement date of 1 January, 2019, for purposes which are not at all in the best interest of Australian families,” he wrote.

“Families presently in the system are subject to the confusion and delays inherent in the two-court system which is now roundly acknowledged as an experiment that has failed and which is in urgent need of reform.”

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