A vice-chancellor’s defence of academic freedom

Why should freedom of the press trump the right of academics to have their say? Linda Cronin

There has been much discussion about the role of free speech and a free press since the publication last week of the report from the independent inquiry into the Australian media. The review was conducted by former Federal Court judge Ray Finkelstein and our colleague, Professor Matthew Ricketson.

Among the report’s recommendations is the establishment of a new body to oversee the media. Some regard this as an attack on freedom of the press – even freedom of speech itself. I’ll leave it to others to debate that point, but I would like to discuss another important freedom: academic freedom

This is an area that is important to us all at the University of Canberra and something I have had a cause to consider since the report’s findings made me the unexpected recipient of a flood of emails within the space of a few hours, robustly exercising their authors’ right to free speech.

To date, I have received over 70 messages as part of a concerted and often colourful campaign of free expression by people who disagree with the inquiry’s findings and believe this is somehow cause for me to dismiss our Professor of Journalism.

On the contrary I am proud that Professor Ricketson was appointed by the elected Australian Government to participate in a very important inquiry and I hope the rest of the University community shares this sense of pride.

The University of Canberra is committed to academic freedom. We staunchly defend the right of our academics to write, speak and debate ideas in their area of expertise. Just last year we stood up to legal threats by a large, influential media organisation against a lone UC academic. We will no doubt be called upon to defend academic freedom again.

Many of the messages in the campaign currently illuminating my in-box bear striking textual similarities to each other, suggesting there is a script somewhere to streamline the process of compiling an abusive email. (I am all for efficiency.)

One, however, stands out for its originality. It simultaneously bases its argument around the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights and brands the UN an “international cesspit”. My correspondent describes me as a “totalitarian pipsqueak… sucking up” to my “fellow bed-wetting, tree-hugging, lickspittle lackey, totalitarian socialist running dogs in Government” in a “filthy, greedy grab for another thirty pieces of sliver (sic)”.

I felt certain my wife would not recognize me from such a description, but I checked with her and she largely confirmed my belief.

I have also been described as a “do-nothing, fourth rate academic who never earned an honest cent by delivering real value to his fellow citizens who continues to live off the teat of taxpayers, mewling and squealing about free citizens freely exercising our open society and muzzling our free speech.” (I didn’t risk checking my wife’s reaction to that.) It seems that this particular correspondent believed that I, Parker, was the author of the report. (I quite like the sound of “I, Parker”, by the way.)

More hurtful was the demand by a different author that the ANU immediately dismiss Matthew.

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