Free speech comes to Australia
And not a moment too soon
For the last few years I’ve been focused on India, trying to bring data to the highly contentious (because highly politicized) question of the quality of Indian democracy. One item that comes up repeatedly is “what about academic freedom in India?” It is true that Indian universities often face pressure to muzzle government-critical academics, but academics are muzzled everywhere, or at least muzzled more than they would like to be. In evaluating the comparative quality of free speech institutions, the relevant question isn’t “has any academic ever been pressured on speech” but “what is the severity of the consequences faced by academics who push the limits of academic freedom?” In India, the worst reports are that multiple academics have been called into meetings with their deans, or voluntarily chosen to leave academia for other fields.
In Australia, I have been in personal contact with six tenured academics who have lost their jobs outright in cases prompted by controversial speech. Scaled up to India’s population, that would be the equivalent of 200 academics being fired in India. In other words, there is strong prima facie evidence that academic freedom in Australia is nowhere near as well respected as it is in India. That’s either a good sign for India, or a bad one for Australia.
To be fair, only one of the academics on my Australian list was outright fired for controversial speech, in a case that went all the way to the High Court (which found in favor of the academic). The other five all lost their jobs under idiosyncratic circumstances: i.e., they were “forced out.” Technically they were fired for other causes, like Al Capone going to jail for tax evasion. Had they each been more careful (or less stubborn), they might have kept their jobs. But the fact remains: had they not spoken controversially, they never would have faced the pressure that ultimately led to their loss of employment.
In this era of cancel culture, Western universities not the heroic bastions of free speech that they claim to be. To see that, one need only look at the UK, where Spectator columnist Toby Young founded the Free Speech Union (FSU) in 2020. During its brief four-year existence, the FSU has taken on more than 2300 cases, claiming to have achieved “favourable outcome 73% of the time.” Most of these have been outside academia, but the FSU has weighed in multiple deplatforming cases. The FSU provides some legal support to members (it is a membership organization), but perhaps more importantly, it represents an organized national voice advocating for freedom of speech.
Now the FSU has come to Australia. We have our own organization, the Free Speech Union of Australia:
I say “we” because I joined within 10 minutes of learning about it. Membership is $199 a year ($49 for students) and I hope that all of you who live in Australia will join as well. For those of you in New Zealand: congratulations! You got there first. And for the many Indians and Americans on this list … what are you waiting for? Every country should have its own Free Speech Union.
The truth is that academic freedom is not as seriously “under threat” in Australia as the culture warriors would like us to believe. The 2019 free speech review chaired by the Hon Robert French AC may have whitewashed many of the challenges, but it did result in a robust code, which has (for the most part) been implemented. My university in particular cops a lot of criticism on these issues, but it is actually one of the best universities in the world for freedom of speech, and certainly in Australia. There is not a “free speech emergency” in Australia.
But there are threats (serious threats) and as we Americans like to say, “eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.” The UK Free Speech Union often defends people with whom I disagree, just as the American Civil Liberties Union did in its glory years. I hope and trust that the Australian Free Speech Union will do the same. But “it” can’t do anything. “We” have to defend freedom of speech — by joining the FSU. As members, we can shape the priorities of the organization, ensuring that it keeps true to its mission. Without us, the FSU is just someone else’s business.
I hope that all of you who live in Australia will join me in membership at the Free Speech Union of Australia. It’s a necessary institution, both for academics and for the wider public. Have a happy 2024, and expect more newsletters this year.
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