Federal Education Minister Dan Tehan’s latest proposal – that universities charge student activists for security when organising protests – is the right’s latest missive in the campus free speech wars.
Tehan’s proposal would see student protesters cop the bill for increased security if they organise protests against controversial speakers coming onto campuses. If adopted, this proposal would turn the right to protest into a privilege for those who can afford it.
Yet, according to Tehan, such ‘pay-to-protest’ laws are being done in defence of freedom of speech. To borrow from that US Army major speaking on the bombing of the town of Ben Tre during the Vietnam War: it is now necessary to destroy freedom of speech on campus in order to save it.
There’s no end to right-wing hysteria on the persecution of freedom of speech. According to Matthew Lesh from the Institute of Public Affairs (IPA), ‘the state of free speech on campus is in peril’. The IPA now releases an annual ‘free speech on campus’ audit, which includes a handy colour-coded rating system, akin to a terror threat alert, where universities are given a red, amber or green rating depending on how ‘hostile’ those campuses are to free speech. According to the IPA, a staggering 81 per cent of Australian universities are red alert campuses (being the most hostile to free speech), while only one campus – the University of New England – gets a green alert.
And while university heads have been sceptical of Tehan’s ‘pay-to-protest’ proposal, they agree with the premise that free speech on campus is under attack. ANU chancellor Gareth Evans told a conference recently, ‘Keeping alive the great tradition of our universities – untrammelled autonomy and untrammelled freedom of speech – is a cause to which university chancellors… should be prepared to go to the barricades.’
Tehan’s proposal came after a series of protests around the country against the right-wing sex therapist Bettina Arndt’s ‘Fake Rape Crisis’ campus speaking tour. The tour was hosted by campus Liberal student clubs and was an opportunity for Arndt to flog her forthcoming book #MenToo and to contest the Australian Human Rights Commission report into rates of campus sexual assault released last year, which found that one in ten women had been sexually assaulted while studying in 2015 and 2016. Arndt reckons this figure is too high and that now, with the advent of #metoo and the spotlight fixed on men’s behaviour, it is men who are the real victims: ‘They can be accused by women who are suffering from regret sex or women who are feeling bad because they ended up having sex with the wrong person.’
Arndt has been a men’s rights activist (MRA) since before it was cool and has built a career off loving men, hating women and questioning consent as a feminist plot. Recently, she argued that women need to take responsibility if they get drunk and ‘make stupid decisions’ like getting sexually assaulted; in the past, she’s argued that women in unhappy marriages should stop withholding sex from their husbands and submit to their insatiable, lusty male libidos: ‘The right to say “no” needs to give way to saying “yes” more often.’
So it’s no surprise that an old-school MRA like Arndt would take issue with the #metoo movement; it’s also no surprise that student activists would find a reason to protest her presence on their campuses, which they did at both La Trobe and Sydney universities.
And yet the outrage at the thought that students might organise anti-sexist, anti-misogyny protests to greet Arndt on campuses she was visiting was beyond the pale for some. Predictable as ever, the Murdoch press unleashed their screeching army of free speech warriors: Tim Blair labelled the protesters a ‘woke militia’ of ‘ambulatory, speech-capable carp’; Andrew Bolt called for the disciplining of not only the protesters but also the blacklisting of student journalists who published opinions critical of Arndt’s campus tour.
And Arndt herself is leading a social media campaign – including a gofundme that has thus far raised thousands of dollars – to have five Sydney Uni activists disciplined by the university for taking part in the demonstration. As Arndt says in a Facebook post, ‘The whole point of this exercise was to hold the protest organisers responsible for trying to shut down free speech.’
This is how eviscerated of meaning the concept of free speech has now become. Freedom of speech has become the catchcry of right-wing figures who find their ideas actively contested. Free speech is no longer the right of those people who are systematically denied the right to speak. Free speech no longer emerges, in the words of Jacques Rancière, in a time and in a place you’re not supposed to speak, exercised by those who aren’t allowed to speak. Free speech is now a weapon in the right’s arsenal: by invoking free speech, they simultaneously bludgeon an ‘intolerant’ left who dare disagree with them. Further, by turning it into a debate on whether they are ‘allowed’ to speak at all, the right shield themselves from any criticism of the toxicity of their ideas.
It is an insult to the history of the campaigns for free speech that the right can position themselves as its inheritors and its defenders. That Tom Slater, the deputy editor of the UK right-wing libertarian magazine spiked, could invoke the memory of the Berkley Free Speech Movement and its famous leader Mario Savio in the introduction to his 2016 book Unsafe Space – which argues, among other things, that trigger warnings and the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions campaign are the biggest threat to free speech on campus today – desecrates the memory of those student activists like Savio whose fight for free speech was a fight for the ideas needed to challenge US imperialism and capitalism.
The right’s attempts to hollow out freedom of speech shouldn’t mean that the left forgets its history: freedom of speech has always been a fight to speak against the institutions of power who deny us that freedom.
This is why Arndt’s argument that student protesters are ‘shutting down’ her freedom of speech, or worse, that students could shut down the Ramsay Centre’s freedom of speech, is a claim worthy of the utmost ridicule. Not only is the act of protest the physical manifestation of free speech and expression, the idea that student activists have the power to censor public figures like Arndt or institutions like the Ramsay Centre – which features two former prime ministers on its board – contorts the very meaning of it.
In the case of the Ramsay Centre and its proposal for a designer degree in the supremacy of Western civilisation, far from being a step forward for academic freedom and intellectual inquiry, any university that accepts this degree and the billions of dollars of funding attached would be submitting to the Ramsay Centre’s dictating the terms of the degree separate from the university. The Ramsay board would have the final say on the content, the staff and, importantly, the ideological framework of their degree in Western civilisation.
The issue is not one of students and staff censoring pro-Western ideas – most arts students are already effectively majoring in some aspect of Western civilisation. In a time when higher education is continually having its funding cut by consecutive federal governments, the rejection of the Ramsay proposal is about opposing a model for education that sees private billionaire dollars dangled as a carrot in front of cash-starved universities with the stick of academic and ideological control hovering overhead.
But what about Arndt? In this case, her speaking tour was not cover for some nefarious agenda: the speaking tour was her nefarious agenda. She really does believe what she says and she wanted to tour the campuses to promote those ideas. Therefore, are students not censoring her through protest?
First, as with the anti-Ramsay protests, rallying against right-wing figures is a valid form of expression and debate and we should never heed the right’s calls to be civil or respectful towards right-wing personalities or groups. Our forms of protest are tactical considerations and to be worked out democratically by those engaged in the protest, not dictated to from hand-wringing liberals or the right.
However, it can be tempting to argue that, on the basis of her poisonous worldview, Arndt doesn’t deserve the right to free speech. This was the response of some La Trobe students, for example, who called on the university to disinvite Arndt, as freedom of speech was not as important as the views she was expressing. Given that Arndt chooses her words to provoke – for example, by titling her tour ‘Fake Rape Crisis Campus Tour’ – the idea that she should be denied the platform and therefore, the controversy that she craves can make sense.
This is what American socialist Hal Draper called the ‘hierarchy of values’ proposition. In 1967, during the anti-Vietnam War movement, there was a debate among the anti-war left on whether it was right to demonstrate against the military, CIA and Dow and Co. recruiters on campus. Dow manufactured napalm and so the anti-Dow demonstrations attempted to disrupt Dow’s ability to recruit using tactics far more militant than anything witnessed at the recent anti-Arndt or anti-Ramsay demonstrations.
As with the examples of Arndt and Ramsay above, the right in 1967 – with the help of some liberals in the anti-war movement – denounced these anti-Dow demonstrations as impeding on Dow’s right to free speech. And as with the above examples, the protesters in 1967 argued that the question of Dow’s free speech was not valid: Dow descended on campuses not to engage in a battle of ideas but to recruit to the US war machine.
However, there was another section of the anti-war movement who argued the ‘hierarchy of values’ proposition: ‘In our hierarchy of values, free speech is only one rung; stopping the war’s barbarism is a higher value; therefore the right to free speech must give way before this value.’ They agreed with the right and the liberals that the protests were impeding Dow’s right to free speech but that this could be tossed out because the danger Dow presented meant they didn’t deserve this right.
It is the same logic that led students to call on the university to disinvite Arndt (which La Trobe administration did before reversing that decision). And it is the same logic that has been turned against the left countless times. In 2014, just after Operation Protective Edge in which the Israeli military killed over two thousand Palestinians in seven weeks, then education minister Christopher Pyne condemned campus pro-Palestine activists in a national paper, writing, ‘University administrations should be very careful not to invoke freedom of speech to allow speech that vilifies students.’
Pyne had embarked on the well-worn path of slandering Palestine solidarity activists as antisemitic and on this basis, they lost their right to free speech. Pyne’s calculated intervention contributed to a climate of censorship and discipline towards staff and students who actively supported Palestine, leading to the de-registration of a campus socialist club later that year. Even within the left, there’s a diversity of political and moral frameworks, which means at some point, some individual or group of individuals would have to nominate themselves the judge of who and who isn’t deserving of free speech.
Almost all the instances the right raise as attacks on freedom of speech are not free speech issues at all. The right cynically crow about their free speech persecution in the pages of national dailies, from the screens of nightly news programs and the lecterns of university lecture theatres.
But the left’s response to the right’s hypocrisy shouldn’t be the adoption of a relative position to freedom of speech. We need to rescue it from the right, which means fighting for the expansion of the right to free speech, not restriction.
Inevitably, calling for the restriction of freedom of speech means calling on the state or some other stand-in authority (such as university administrations) to restrict that right on our behalf, since only they have the power to effect it. And as is evident with the recent passing of various anti-protest measures at state and federal levels – including the arming of Victoria Police with so-called less-than-lethal weapons explicitly for the purpose of ‘crowd control’ – it’s never too long before the authorities turn their repression towards the left.
As a recent US study showed, the real targets of increasing censoriousness on campus has been progressives. But such is the topsy-turvy period we live in where the right have positioned themselves as the enemies of censorship and the champions of free speech. With the growth of the far right internationally, coupled with an increasingly authoritarian state, the left needs to recapture its democratic spirit – because if our project for social transformation is to be an emancipatory one, then the fight to retain and expand democratic participation is essential.
Image: Free Speech Movement aat the University of California, Berkeley (1964). Collection of Oakland Museum of California.