ACU backs free speech code

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ACU Chancellor John Fahey says ACU “fundamentally supports” freedom of speech and academic inquiry. PHOTO: ACU
ACU Chancellor John Fahey says ACU “fundamentally supports” freedom of speech and academic inquiry. PHOTO: ACU

University throws its support behind French recommendations

Australia’s largest Catholic university is backing moves to implement a freedom of speech code across all its campuses, as recommended by High Court Chief Justice Robert French AC.

Australian Catholic University Chancellor, John Fahey AC, said the university “fundamentally supports” freedom of speech and academic inquiry.

“ACU strongly believes that universities exist to provide a forum for a contest of ideas,” he said.

ACU’s code will be “modelled closely” on the recommendations of Justice French’s recommendations for Australian universities, but “adapted to suit the university’s characteristics and mission.”

“I anticipate that, if supported, the implementation of the code will require a wholesale review of all university statutes and policies that may interact with the code,” said Mr Fahey.

“It is easy enough for a university to adopt a code, but the real effect will be in its comprehensive implementation.”

Speaking with The Catholic Weekly, Mr Fahey said that the drafting of the code is a “top priority” for the university.

“But it won’t be a quick process. Once drafted, the code will be taken to ACU’s Senate for endorsement. It is anticipated that this will occur before the end of the year.”

The East Meets West Eucharistic procession at ACU Strathfield. PHOTO: Giovanni Portelli

Australian universities urged to speak up on the importance of free speech

The 300-page so-called ‘French Review’ was commissioned in November 2018 by federal Education Minister Dan Tehan, in response to reports to a rapidly shrinking atmosphere for freedom of speech across Australian campuses.

He told media he had commissioned the review because of “the growing sense that some students at universities and Australians more broadly are self-censoring out of fear they’ll be shouted down or condemned for expressing sincerely-held views and beliefs, or for challenging widely accepted ideas, should concern us all.”

He urged all Australian universities to “send a clear and unambiguous signal … of the vital importance of free speech and academic inquiry.”

Universities Australia – representing almost all Australian universities including the Group of 8 – a coalition of eight leading Australian research universities – denies there is a problem of freedom on their campuses.

Responding to the French report last week it said its members would give “full and careful consideration” to the review, but asserted the autonomy of universities. It said any consideration of freedom of speech would be done in light of an “existing complex array of institutional policies and procedures”.

Paul Morrissey. Photo: Giovanni Portelli
Paul Morrissey. Photo: Giovanni Portelli

Mr Tehan characterised the response as “burying their heads in the sand”.

Marine Geophysicist, Peter Ridd, unfairly dismissed from James Cook University for questioning climate change science, says his experience shows that many universities don’t “believe” in intellectual freedom.

“There actually is a crisis, and the way you can tell there’s a crisis is; the reaction of the universities [to the French Review],” he said.

At the time of writing, the University of Western Australia remains one of the only public universities to implement the French code.

By contrast, Dr Paul Morrissey, president of Sydney’s liberal arts tertiary institution, Campion College, says he “welcomes the moves towards a clearer definition and defence of academic freedom.”

“Freedom, rightly understood, should always be ordered to something higher. Academic freedom, properly understood, is a sphere for genuine scholarly debate about the truth of things,” Dr Morrissey said. The University of Notre Dame was also contacted for comment for this story.

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