The rising cost of ‘free’ speech

The rising cost of ‘free’ speech

James Paterson — The Australian — 1 October 2018


Free speech shouldn’t come with a hefty price tag. The practice of charging event organisers for the cost of ensuring their own safety risks stifling debate and providing an incentive for threats of violence.

Last week, University of Sydney vice-chancellor Michael Spence wrote on this page defending exactly that. This followed the university’s decision to charge the Sydney University Liberal Club $475 in security costs for an event it organised with Bettina Arndt.

Arndt’s talk, debating the prevalence of sexual assault on university campuses, was the target of a protest by the university’s women’s collective, who argued that there was “no place on campus” for her opinions. The talk went ahead, but only after riot police were called to control the 40 or so protesters who were physically blocking access to the event.

This seems not to have fazed Spence, who claimed that “charging for security is simply not a threat to freedom of speech at our campuses”. He also painted an image of his university as a place “where ideas of every type are … developed, presented, tested, argued over, protested and railed against, reformulated and defended”.

This is a laudable goal but, as Matthew Lesh of the Institute of Public Affairs argued on this page last Friday, we are in the midst of a campus free speech crisis. And Sydney University is no exception.

In the recent past, the student union has threatened to deregister Christian student clubs because of their views and banned the screening of controversial documentary The Red Pill. The university has refused to provide students with a venue to host the Australian Christian Lobby’s Lyle Shelton. Multiple student protests have turned violent. And security fees have been charged to student groups such as the Conservative Club, which in August last year had to pay $760 for a talk on the “dangers of socialism”.

The goal of these student protests is to shut down dissenting voices on campus and to undermine the pluralistic aims of the university. Instead of combating this dangerous trend, the university is encouraging it by placing a financial burden on those students who favour debate.

This is why the Institute of Public Affairs ranked Sydney University in last place in the country in its audit last year of free speech at Australian universities.

Australian universities receive more than $16.9 billion from Australian taxpayers every year. They ought to be able to ensure ideas can be discussed and debated without the threat of physical violence or undue financial penalty. If Sydney University believes additional security is necessary then it should follow the example of La Trobe University, which rightly backed down from its initial opposition to a talk by Arndt and agreed to cover the security costs rather than placing the financial burden on the students wanting to hear Arndt’s perspective of a topical issue.

Unfortunately, Sydney University isn’t the only Australian institution to penalise people for hosting controversial speakers.

During the past year, Victoria Police has issued significant fees to event organisers for the cost of policing the protests organised against them.

In December last year, right-wing provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos was issued with a bill of $50,000, while this year YouTube personality Lauren Southern was issued a bill of $68,000.

There were even reports Victoria Police planned to charge British politician Nigel Farage — a sitting member of the European Parliament — for the cost of deploying enough police to outnumber the 200-odd protesters.

The mere prospect of such fees is likely to discourage event organisers from bringing any guest speakers here who may be the subject of protests. This won’t just affect fringe provocateurs and YouTube personalities such as Yiannopoulos and Southern. It will affect any speaker who is opposed by any group angry enough to threaten violent protests.

This system is effectively a tax on free speech. And it encourages the people who want to shut down alternative viewpoints to threaten violence to increase the potential costs imposed on political opponents. If the price is high enough it may prevent speakers from coming to campus or touring Australia. We will all suffer if this practice leads to opinions not being heard and debates not taking place.

The ability to discuss and debate controversial ideas is fundamental to a free society. This includes the right to protest peacefully. But the risk that a protest may turn violent in no way justifies imposing a financial penalty on the people whose event has excited that opposition.

An alternative approach to protect free debate clearly is needed. The best option would be for our well-funded universities to meet the costs of a genuinely pluralistic campus where ideas are tested in debate, even if some students or faculty find those ideas upsetting. Our police forces should do their job of maintaining peace and order without attempting to offload the cost.

However, as federal Education Minister Dan Tehan recently argued, if anyone ought to meet the cost of additional police or security it should be the individuals and organisations caught violently disrupting events.

We cannot allow violent protesters a veto over what we’re allowed to hear.

This article originally appeared in The Australian.


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