Conservatives Are the Ones Attacking Free Speech at Universities

Australian conservatives claim that “woke” students and left-wing lecturers pose a threat to free speech on university campuses. But the real “cancel culture” is coming from the Right.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison (R) walks with education minister Alan Tudge (L) to a media conference at Parliament House in Canberra, Australia. (David Gray / Getty Images)

Australian conservatives claim that “woke” students and leftist academics are creating an Orwellian atmosphere, silencing honest academic debate. They present themselves as the guardians of free speech on campus. In June, education minister Alan Tudge warned universities that if they did not implement the government’s preferred code of conduct, ostensibly designed to protect freedom of speech, the courts would make them do so.

The code to which Trudge was referring is the product of a 2018–19 review into freedom of speech and academic freedom commissioned by his predecessor and carried out by chief justice Robert French. The French review came after a right-wing culture war around freedom of speech on university campuses and a series of reports on academic freedom launched by the Institute of Public Affairs (IPA), a right-wing libertarian think tank.

The Australian right’s strategy is almost identical to that of its counterparts in Britain. Having overseen years of disastrous cuts to higher education, the Coalition is now waging a war on academic freedom. Their goal is to clamp down on left-wing speech and activism, marginalize progressive academics, and push university education to the right.

Involuntary Model Code

The French review found few actual cases in which activists had undermined free speech on campus. Instead, it observed that recent incidents reported in the press

do not establish a systematic pattern of action by higher education providers or student representative bodies adverse to freedom of speech or intellectual inquiry in the higher education sector.

The review did, however, conclude that “even a limited number of incidents . . . may have an adverse impact on public perception of the higher education sector which can feed into the political sphere.” Far from exposing censorious students and academics, the French review drew attention to the role the media has played in stoking a moral panic.

Nevertheless, the report recommended a code of conduct known as the “French model code.” It recommends that external parties should not restrict lawful speech by staff, students, or invited speakers. Academic staff and students, the report insists, should not have their intellectual inquiry and their ability to express their opinions or engage in public debates constrained by opponents of free speech.

The authors of the report explicitly rejected the idea of imposing the code on universities. Despite this, Australian minister Dan Tehan felt that universities weren’t adopting this voluntary model code with sufficient enthusiasm. In response, he commissioned a further review in August 2020, conducted by former Deakin University vice chancellor Sally Walker.

Of the forty-two universities surveyed by the Walker review, thirty-two had implemented the French model code — although not all had adopted the report’s full list of recommendations. Only six universities reported they had no plans to implement the Code.

In March, Parliament passed the Higher Education Support Amendment (Freedom of Speech) Act 2020, in line with this recommendation. A Sydney Morning Herald article hinted at the ulterior motives behind support for implementing the bill. The article outlined how the government negotiated its definition of academic freedom with Pauline Hanson’s One Nation Party. In return, the right-populist party committed to supporting other government bills, including the Job-Ready Graduates legislation that raised university fees for many courses.

Conservatives Against Freedom of Speech

The Australian right imported the claim that universities are beset by a “free speech crisis” from the United States and UK, where similar moral panics have come to dominate politics. As the story goes, “snowflake” students and left-wing academics have created an Orwellian culture. Allegedly, a mixture of cultural Marxism, identity politics, and postmodernism has inspired the anti-liberal turn in student politics. This confected crisis has focused on the tactic of “no platforming,” which aims to ban, disinvite, or disrupt objectionable speakers.

In the UK, the National Union of Students has had a “no platform” policy in place since the mid-1970s, applied mainly to openly fascist or racist groups or speakers. But conservatives have raised increasing alarms about it over the last decade. They have pointed to the 2015 attempt to disinvite Germaine Greer from speaking at Cardiff University over her transphobic views and the disinvitation of former home secretary Amber Rudd at Oxford in 2020.

The British Conservative Party has also criticized Cambridge University for revoking a fellowship given to Noah Carl, who had previously argued that the debate about “race, genes, and IQ” was being stifled. These, cases, they claim, prove that universities are increasingly intolerant toward conservatives and “gender critical” feminists.

This narrative has little basis in reality. Following renewed media coverage, in 2017, then UK universities minister Jo Johnson launched a parliamentary inquiry into freedom of speech at universities, conducted by the Joint Committee on Human Rights (JCHR). The JCHR’s final report found that although there had been some incursions on “lawful free speech,” there was no evidence of “the wholesale censorship of debate which media coverage has suggested.”

The JCHR report did, however, call for greater intervention against student unions that “inhibit lawful free speech.” It recommended that “effective action should be taken against protestors” who go “beyond the law” in attempts to disrupt or shut down events. The report suggested that the newly created Office for Students publish an annual report on free speech at universities.

“War on Woke”

Under the leadership of Boris Johnson, the Conservative Party have pivoted toward an increasingly right-wing, populist politics. In its 2019 manifesto, the party pledged to “strengthen academic freedom and free speech in universities.” Johnson modelled his approach on recommendations from right-wing think tanks such as Policy Exchange. The Guardian described the research methodology underpinning Policy Exchange’s findings as “laughable.”

In February 2020, UK education secretary Gavin Williamson warned that the government would intervene if universities did not implement its freedom of speech reforms. By the time the Tories had introduced legislation to Parliament, they had already initiated a wider “war on woke.” They have targeted historical research critical of the British Empire, as well as institutions like the National Trust and the BBC.

Instead of following the JHCR report, the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Act 2021 fell largely in line with Policy Exchange’s recommendations. Most troublingly, it extended legislation applied to universities to student unions, previously accused by the government of “subsidizing niche activism.” The government also mandated that the Office for Students appoint a director of freedom of speech and academic freedom (colloquially known as the “Free Speech Champion”).

The act further empowered the right by making it possible to launch legal proceedings over alleged infringements on freedom of speech. As David Renton has shown, this has the potential to generate a multitude of court cases. These would effectively lead to campaigns led by wealthy right-wing donors intervening in university politics in the name of free speech.

During this period, the Johnson government demanded that universities adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism, which can be used to label all robust criticism of Israel as antisemitic. The man who first drafted that definition, Kenneth Stern, has strongly opposed its use for disciplinary purposes. Johnson’s defense of the IHRA was part of his government’s wider crackdown on alleged antisemitism on campus. Absurdly, at the same time, universities minister Michelle Donelan suggested that universities should permit Holocaust deniers to speak on campuses, provided they weren’t “straying into racism.”

Following in the UK’s Footsteps

Australian conservatives are following the same playbook. In February this year, as the senate debated the government’s Higher Education Act, Liberal senator Claire Chandler claimed:

Reports into academic freedom and censorship in the UK have shown that radical activists within universities are generating and coordinating formal complaints and protests that agitate for academics to be fired or deplatformed. Too often the response by the university in question is not to support the academic freedom of its own academics but to give in to a Twitter pile-on. As a result, academics and experts are increasingly self-censoring and staying away from topics that may draw the ire of activists and may result in attempts to have them sacked. That is a hugely concerning and anti-intellectual trend that must be arrested.

Right-wing media outlets — primarily the Australian — have breathlessly reinforced this narrative. Figures like Janet Albrechtsen have endorsed the campaign on behalf of Toby Young’s Free Speech Union, which bills itself as “GetUp for normal people.” Hard-right Spiked columnists such as Brendan O’Neill and Frank Furedi have added their voices to the chorus, promoting a local version of the myth of a free speech crisis on campus.

Likewise inspired by Spiked’s 2015 Free Speech University Rankings, the IPA conducted three Free Speech on Campus audits between 2016 and 2018. The media covered these audits widely, but did not scrutinize the IPA’s methodology and findings, which RMIT University social policy professor Rob Watts described as “a mixture of anecdote and a spurious quantitative audit.” Meanwhile, Brendan O’Neill became a regular guest on the IPA’s podcast, cohosted by Andrew Bolt’s son James.

The War on Higher Education

This recent moral panic about free speech at universities is part of a wider attack on higher education and academic research. During the height of the pandemic, the crisis claimed seventeen thousand jobs. Despite this, the government designed the JobKeeper wage subsidy specifically to prohibit universities from claiming support.

At the same time, the Liberals raised fees for subjects in the humanities, law, and communications as part of the Job-Ready Graduates program. The moves have compounded the higher education crisis caused by years of neoliberal reforms and exceptionally high levels of casualization. As a 2019 report by the National Union of Students makes clear, cuts and job losses are a far greater threat to academic freedom of speech than “woke” students.

The war on higher education is ideologically motivated. The Right views the humanities in particular as an enemy because of its alleged focus on teaching critical social analysis of class, race, and gender. In parallel with their UK counterparts, Australian conservatives have attacked history courses for being dominated by “identity politics” and for criticizing Australia’s settler-colonial past.

It’s part of the ongoing legacy of the “History Wars,” launched under John Howard, in which right-wing historians attacked the “black armband” view of Australian’s colonial history. Similarly, Howard politicized the Australian Research Council’s (ARC) grant assessment process by giving the education minister a veto. Conservatives then used this veto to scupper progressive projects. Unsurprisingly, in 2018, it came to light that then Liberal education minister Simon Birmingham had also vetoed several ARC-funded projects.

Today, projects seeking ARC funding must pass a national interest test. This has led Australia’s peak research funding body to self-censor. In a senate estimates committee hearing, the ARC admitted to flagging potential “sensitivities” in projects that may represent Chinese influence over Australian universities and research programs.

Defend Academic Freedom Against Conservatives

In a recent Sky News interview, Alan Tudge hinted at further attacks, exclaiming that he had “lost patience” with universities for not implementing the French model code. In 2020, universities took a severe battering and administrations offered little resistance to the Morrison government’s anti-university agenda. There’s every chance that vice chancellors will decide it’s not worth fighting on this issue as well.

There is a war on freedom of speech at Australian universities — it’s being waged by conservatives who, sensing an opportunity, look set to escalate their attacks. The result will be job losses, intimidation of progressive academics, and restrictions on student activism and organizing. As the Right tries to coerce universities into promoting conservative ideology, it will fall to students and academics to defend freedom of speech on campus.