Political philosopher Ronald Dworkin thought of universities as theatres for the exercise of the independence of the mind. They should be places where ideas of every type are, at the very least, developed, presented, tested, argued over, protested and railed against, reformulated and defended. That is the day-to-day experience of students at our universities, including the University of Sydney, inside and outside the classroom.
On any given day, on almost any issue, there is a diversity of views presented on our campus, in the classroom, in student groups and by organisations to whom the university provides a platform by renting out our lecture halls. The picture that sometimes appears in the flyers of the culture warriors — of our university as a camp of indoctrination in which free speech is inhibited — is simply unrecognisable to those who work and study here.
To this claim, there are a few important riders. First, in all democracies there are limits on unfettered speech and we will not tolerate speech that is unlawful. Unlawful hate speech has no place in an academic institution. It does not seek to advance understanding, which must be the aim of all academic debate.
Second, we require staff and students to observe codes of conduct in the conduct of debate. In enforcing these codes, we are often presented with the need to balance the right to protest with the right to ensure that protest is not conducted in a way that silences others. But we also expect that difficult ideas may create protest that is passionate and loud. As the opposition assistant spokeswoman for universities observed last week, the recent media examples of debate on campuses show free speech is alive and well.
Third, we take very seriously the safety of staff, students and visitors to campus. Here is the issue at the heart of a recent skirmish in the culture wars.
At events that are being organised on campus we require the organisers to foot the — usually very modest — bill for any additional security they may request or that our security service may deem to be required. In a case much discussed in recent weeks this bill amounted to $475.
There is absolutely no evidence that these policies are applied unevenly. In recent times we have charged the Vet Society and Engineering Undergraduate Association for social events, and for a group organising a Syrian Voices event. Nevertheless, this position recently has been the subject of criticism.
Of course, it would be possible for the university to foot the bill for any additional security required at an event. But, given finite resources, we then would be in the position of deciding which events to subsidise. At least on what Isaiah Berlin called a “negative” conception of liberty, that would hardly be a position compatible with our commitment to a free marketplace of ideas.
Even if we were to adopt a commitment to Berlin’s so-called “positive” conception of liberty and to believe, as some do, that free speech requires the subsidisation of minority voices to be heard, payment for security would hardly be a rational way of distributing that subsidy.
It has been suggested that protesters may be required to pay for this security. In some circumstances, this is an appealing proposition. However, in most cases protests are perfectly peaceful and presumably no one is suggesting that the right to speech of protesters is less important than the right to speech of event organisers.
Even in cases in which protests are not peaceful, any suggestion that we should charge protesters would need to take into account that only some are, at any given event, likely to be staff or students of the university.
And so we charge event organisers. Security is a part of the cost of running an event. It gives event organisers the incentive to run an event to which a reasonable number of people will want to come so as to defray the cost, though most student groups have additional sources of funding.
Charging for security is simply not a threat to freedom of speech at our campuses. But the fact the suggestion has been made is evidence of quite how silly the culture wars have become on all sides. It is symptomatic of a wider public malaise, where each side adopts a position and yells at the other from across a ravine. No attempt to understand one another or even to engage on the basis of agreed facts seems evident.
Isn’t it time that we began to listen to one another?
This article was first published in The Australian. Dr Michael Spence is Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of Sydney. Visit The Australian to read the full article.