A few years back, my sainted PhD supervisor Ariadne Vromen made me appear on a panel about digital activism to share the stage with the next big thinker in the field, Dave Karpf, who was just about to publish Analytic Activism, now a standout text in the field of online advocacy.
His first book, The MoveOn Effect, was transformational in its understanding of digital campaigning.
Turns out he was a nice guy and not a pompous git. That day, he'd just learned he'd been awarded tenure at George Washington University, one of the top-ranked universities in his field of political communication. T
hree years later, Karpf has found himself as the subject of political communication and a banner boy for academic freedom.
Three days ago, Karpf read a story about the bedbug infestation of the New York Times's newsroom. Infestation might be a stretch. They were found in a 'wellness' room, a couch floor and a booth.
Karpf tweeted: "The bedbugs are a metaphor. The bedbugs are Bret Stephens."
Stephens is a columnist for the New York Times, an advocate for free speech, an opponent of deplatforming and a centre right conservative Jew, no fan of the US president.
He's long been an advocate for arguments. He was a guest of the Lowy Institute in 2017 where he gave an entertaining speech about the art of disagreement where he critiqued those who wanted to shut down speech because of hurt feelings.
"This is the age of protected feelings purchased at the cost of permanent infantilisation," he said.
But Stephens saw Karpf's bedbug tweet and instead of perfecting his own art of disagreement, Stephens sent for daddy.
A perfect response. Australia is experiencing real challenges to academic freedom despite the findings of the review into academic freedom of speech by the former Chief Justice of the High Court Chief of Australia Robert French which restates international law and protects the rights of academics.
About a week ago, an academic at a university (not mine, I hasten to add) met with his supervisor. On the academic's private Facebook page, he'd posted in support of some protestors and shared a news item which criticised his own university.
A colleague and Facebook "friend" took a screenshot and provided it as evidence to the supervisor's supervisor. The academic received a friendly warning and his supervisor brought up the Banerji ruling of the High Court.
Last time I checked, academics were not public servants, so I thought I'd check again.
Former president of the Australian Human Rights Commission Gillian Triggs reminds me that Commonwealth funding barely covers 50 per cent of the cost of universities.
"I have no doubt at all. Academics are not public servants," she says.
I asked Miriam Bankovsky, an academic at La Trobe University who researches in this area, if she thought Australia's vice chancellors would respond with such protective gusto.
"Until it is clear what decisions are being made by Australian universities in this space, it is not possible to say, with confidence, whether Australian universities would similarly defend their own staff's right to freedom of expression and academic freedom."
Which is not an endorsement of the current state of academic freedom. Only one university so far has publicly come on board to support the French model and that's the University of Melbourne.
As a tenured white male professor, I am in a lucky and privileged position and I'm well-protected compared to the majority of academics.Dave Karpf
There's a lot going on behind the scenes but when there's no deadline, there's no hurry.
Bankovsky also points out that this kind of threat is not the only one: potential impacts of philanthropic donors and stakeholder funding; influence of vested interests (including authoritarian regimes) and the ability of character assassination in the media to destroy research careers.
As an academic, I am confident I'd have the support of my university in speaking out and Dave Karpf told me he was completely untroubled by Stephens's attempt to shut him down and frighten him.
"As a tenured white male professor, I am in a lucky and privileged position and I'm well-protected compared to the majority of academics," he says.
"But think of a more courageous professor, one who speaks truth to real power and the real power pushes back, the university folds and demands an apology from the professor."
Among all analysis of the email and Twitter exchange, there was some conjecture that in comparing Stephens to a bedbug was deeply anti-Semitic - which might fly if Karpf himself was not Jewish. It's been a few days now and the coverage is still unremitting. Karpf is using it as a case study for his classes.
He says that when he first got the email he thought it was a joke, maybe to tease him. "But a few hours in, I realised that Stephens demonstrated the layers of isolating privilege he has."
The New York Times columnist demonstrated more than that. He demonstrated a very thin skin. The perfect target for bedbugs.
- Jenna Price is a regular columnist and an academic at the University of Technology Sydney.