Sydney University to consider updating Freedom of Speech Charter

23 October 2019
A report outlining how the University could respond to the Federal Government's Independent Review of Freedom of Speech in Australian Higher Education Providers is due to be considered early next month by the University's Academic Board.

The report outlines how former Chief Justice, the Hon Robert French’s model code for the protection of freedom of speech and academic freedom can be adopted by the University by amending its current Charter of Academic Freedom.

Mr French said the work on his model code at the University of Sydney had been “careful, thoughtful and thorough” and noted that “its response represents one useful model that may assist other universities and the result is entirely consistent with my hope that the Code would provide a non-prescriptive basis for reform in this difficult area.”

The guarantee of freedom of speech for our staff, students and visitors is something we’ve always taken seriously but it’s important to be vigilant.
Dr Michael Spence, Vice-Chancellor and Principal

University of Sydney Vice-Chancellor Dr Michael Spence said one of the fundamental roles of a university was to be a place where ideas can be freely discussed, including those that were controversial or unpopular.

“The guarantee of freedom of speech for our staff, students and visitors is something we’ve always taken seriously at the University of Sydney but it’s important to be vigilant. Mr French’s review provided us with an opportunity to assess the way we promote and protect those freedoms and I thank the group involved for their methodical and sensible report,” Dr Spence said.

The report’s recommendations include:

  • making clear that the University does not restrict or inhibit the freedom of all staff to make public comment on any issue in their personal capacity
  • reaffirming both the freedom to express a view and the freedom to protest against that view noting that respectful argument and disagreement are essential elements of the core mission of a university to advance knowledge
  • extending Mr French’s definition of academic freedom to cover professional staff engaged in academic activities and clarifying that professional staff are also free to express their lawful opinions about the University 
  • stating that free protest should be permitted on University land or in connection with University activities, but it should not be exercised in a way that prevents the free speech of others or which causes property damage or physical risk or danger to others
  • encouraging the independent affiliated residential colleges and student representative bodies to adopt the principles in the code as far as practicable, and
  • including in the Charter an acknowledgement of Indigenous learning cultures and traditions connected to the land on which the University’s campuses and facilities sit.

The report also recommends renaming the current Charter, the Charter of Freedom of Speech and Academic Freedom and says the University should undertake a review of its non-statutory rules, codes of conduct and policies to ensure they are consistent with the provisions of the new Charter, if the Group’s recommendations are endorsed by the University’s Academic Board and ultimately approved by its Senate.

The Academic Board is due to discuss the report on 5 November.

The report was written by a group of senior staff from the University of Sydney including the University’s General Counsel, Richard Fisher; Professor Anne Twomey; Professor Lisa Jackson Pulver; Associate Professor Tony Masters and representatives from the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU), Student Representative Council (SRC), Sydney University Postgraduate Representative Association (SUPRA), the principals of the affiliated residential colleges and the University’s Human Resources Office.