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April 16th 2013 print

John Speer

The academics who hate free speech

Conservative students launch a membership drive and a posse of Melbourne University cry "Racists!" and have them thrown off campus. With all this talk just now about tertiary funding, remember who and what the taxpayer is supporting


The Labor Government’s recent abandonment of Senator Stephen Conroy’s proposed media-regulation laws has brought an end to the greatest assault on free speech in Australia yet attempted. However, the battle is nowhere near over and it rages on in the most trivial of places.


For an an example of just how determined the left is to silence those with whom it disagrees, consider the  recent experience of the the Melbourne University Liberal Club. The MULC is a conservative student organisation that represents a clear minority in the political ecosystem that prevails on campus. Whilst not being directly affiliated with the Liberal Party, the club has adhered to and promoted the values of liberalism since 1925.

In the University of Melbourne’s Orientation Week in February of 2013, the MULC did as it has always done, and set about promoting itself to attract new members. Orientation Week has traditionally been our biggest recruitment drive of the year. In addition to manning our allocated booth at the Clubs & Societies Expo, we also set up a number of stalls around the Parkville campus. These stalls are generally decorated with various Liberal Party corflutes, publications, stickers, and various other promotional giveaways.

Merv Bendle’s submission to a Senate panel looking into academic freedom

This year one of the corflutes, kindly donated to us, originated from the 2001 federal election campaign. This particular corflute pictured then-Prime Minister John Howard and his quote “we will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come.” On one particular day of O-Week, The Club displayed this corflute proudly at our stall, a reminder of one of the Howard government’s most successful policies.

Within minutes of displaying this corflute, members of the MULC were approached by university academics who believed it to be ‘racist’ and ‘disgusting’. In addition to this, they insisted we had no right whatsoever to display it at our stall. Senior members of The Club explained that whilst they were free to hold those opinions, we were perfectly within our rights to voice our own beliefs and display a piece of official election material.

With the debate ending rather quickly, our stall was soon approached by the University of Melbourne’s security staff, who stated they had received “complaints” about the corflute. They then ordered the MULC booth off campus.

After it was explained that all present were both MULC members and students of the university,  thus having a right to be present on university grounds, the security staff then attempted to remove the corflute from the grounds of the university.

Upon members reminding them that the corflute was the MULC’s private property, they placed it back on the stall.

In a desire not to inflame the situation, MULC members transported the stall off campus and onto public property in order to continue our membership drive.

Whilst this incident may seem trivial, it typifies the difficulties and harassment experienced by conservative and libertarian student organisations. The mentality of the left in the practice of freedom of speech, equating to “I don’t want to see it therefore it can’t be displayed”, is arrogant and abusive. We might also call it absurd, if not for the chilling glimpse of the totalitarian mindset determined to crimp and control all conversation and thought on campus.

And remember, it was not left students who complained about our display but academics, who should be dedicated to the free and unfettered discussion and dissection of ideas.

Not only do such attempts to gag fly in the face of the right to free speech and freedom of expression,  they demonstrate the unwillingness of the left on campus, and generally everywhere, to adhere to the basic principles of democracy. I am drawn to a quote from Voltaire’s biographer, Evelyn Beatrice Hall, and often attributed in error to the philosopher himself. It is this: "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it."

Whilst the fight for freedom of expression and speech may be at a temporary ceasefire in Canberra, it continues to escalate in the tertiary institutions of this nation.

John Speer is the campaigns officer with the Melbourne University Liberal Club