'There's no problem': Labor rejects case for new free speech rules at universities
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'There's no problem': Labor rejects case for new free speech rules at universities

The Labor opposition says there is no case to compel universities to adopt new rules on free speech, arguing recent controversies demonstrate freedom of expression is "alive and well" on campuses.

Education Minister Dan Tehan is expected to raise concerns with vice-chancellors on Thursday, following a string of incidents including a violent protest against author Bettina Arndt at Sydney University last week.

Fairfax Media reported on Wednesday that Human Rights Commissioner Ed Santow was prepared to back a code of conduct on free speech on campus, possibly based on examples from the US, saying it was "definitely worth considering".

Free speech "alive and well": Labor's assistant minister for universities, Louise Pratt.

Free speech "alive and well": Labor's assistant minister for universities, Louise Pratt.Credit:Andrew Meares

But Louise Pratt, Labor's shadow assistant minister for universities, told Fairfax Media there was no need for such intervention. She also said universities had a special obligation to not give a platform to arguments that lacked evidence.

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"I don’t think there’s a problem on campuses in relation to free speech," Senator Pratt said. "I think the examples in the media show, frankly, that there is contested debate on campuses and that they go to very meaningful issues that are of interest to the community and students.

"There is, in some cases, a level of conflict about them - which goes to show that free speech is alive and well."

While universities "clearly have a role in promoting debate in the community", their primary responsibility is "for the welfare of their students and their academic staff", Senator Pratt said.

"When they promote free speech, they need to make sure the issues being debated are being debated in a way that’s valid in terms of the evidence."

Arndt, a sex therapist and journalist, has been attacked by left-wing students over her claim that there is no "rape crisis" on Australian university campuses, and that this is a myth made up by ideological feminists.

Police were called to Sydney University when a scuffle broke out at an event featuring Arndt hosted by the campus Liberal Club last week. Protesters said Arndt's message was dangerous to young women at the university and she should not be given a platform to make her case.

But Senator Pratt said there "clearly" was a crisis of sexual assault and harassment, and universities had to be "careful" when giving speakers the opportunity to speak on campus.

Education Minister Dan Tehan and Prime Minister Scott Morrison are keen to bolster free speech at universities.

Education Minister Dan Tehan and Prime Minister Scott Morrison are keen to bolster free speech at universities.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen

"Universities have to be mindful that holding an event on campus gives it an academic stature. That’s why people like to do things on university campuses," she told Fairfax Media.

"Therefore they [universities] should be careful when they’re inviting people on who don’t have an evidence base for their argument."

Mr Tehan has advocated a code of conduct similar to one adopted by the University of Chicago and at least 35 other colleges in the US which commits the institution to fostering an environment where freedom of expression is paramount.

In particular, it says staff and students "may not obstruct, disrupt, or otherwise interfere with the freedom of others to express views they reject or even loathe".

Some commentators have suggested making university funding conditional on adopting a policy similar to the Chicago statement.

Michael Koziol is the immigration and legal affairs reporter for the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, based in Parliament House

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