The view from Billinudgel

The Australian’s crusade on free speech in universities

The University of Sydney. Photograph: wildnenmercurial on Pixabay

About sixty years ago, as an undergraduate at the University of Sydney, I met a flat-earther on campus.

He was not a staff member or a student; he was an amiable middle-aged eccentric named Fowler who hung around demonstrating a carefully constructed model of his flat earth in the hope he would convince passers-by.

As far as I know he never did, but as he was clearly harmless and inoffensive, no one ever attempted to evict him. However, he was not invited to lecture by the Faculty of Science or any other academic body, and would no doubt have been booed and derided if he had tried.

Even in those palmy days, academic freedom had its limits. Nonsense, however unthreatening, was not to be tolerated. In more recent times, Fowler would probably have been an anti-vaxxer or a climate-change denier, resolutely irrational in the face of overwhelming evidence. And, again, no university deserving of the name would have given him an official hearing.

But he would not have been silenced: indeed, The Australian would probably have provided him with a regular column to propagate his views. The paper would no doubt claim it was defending freedom of speech. And this is the basis of its latest holy war: a demand that the opinions of the irrational must be accorded the same status as those of the experts who have devoted their lives to the disciplines, as long as they follow the right-wing agenda the national daily dictates.

And these deniers and refuters are going after not the hard scientists, but the soft ones: the ones who resist the reactionary positions on gender, discrimination and privilege, which are the meat and drink of the Murdoch media.

Thus the Murdoch media’s crusade for the Ramsay Centre, despite the centre’s insistence on interfering with universities’ independence so that it might ensure – in the words one of its directors, Tony Abbott – that Western civilisation is not only studied but also championed. And thus The Australian’s cherry-picking of the report on free speech in higher education, produced by Robert French, which found that there was no crisis in free speech at the universities, but that some kind of code might help to reassure the misgivings of the those who have been spooked by the critics who invented the panic in the first place.

A relatively minor demonstration against a lecture by the conservative commentator Bettina Arndt about what she called a phony rape crisis in the universities was, for The Australian, a full-blown catastrophe, a clear victory for the Marxist-Leninists who have taken over tertiary education and are in the process of subjugating the world as we know it.

Those at The Australian are not interested in whether what she said was factual or not: it was enough that the lefties opposed it. And not just any lefties, the feminist activists, the ones who are bent on destroying male egos, to the horror of Mark Latham and Janet Albrechtsen, among others.

But the point is that, however silly their opinions, no one is trying to shut their rantings down – indeed, they are making good money to push them in every forum available. Nonetheless, at some universities they are not universally welcome, and are told so.

Of course, if they followed the example of Fowler, and did their spruiking on the sidelines, there would be no problem. But by demanding an official platform to proselytise within the university they are being deliberately provocative. This may be their aim, but it is hardly surprising that there will be spirited resistance.

This is what free speech actually means: not silent acquiescence to what is seen to be unsupportable, but vigorous debate. And long may it flourish.

Mungo MacCallum

Mungo MacCallum is a political journalist and commentator. His books include Run Johnny Run, Poll Dancing, and Punch and Judy. Visit his blog, The View from Billinudgel.

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