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Academic freedom and the suspension of Roz Ward

Roz Ward. Supplied

The co-founder of the now-controversial Safe Schools Coalition, La Trobe academic Roz Ward, has been suspended by her university following a Facebook post in which she called the Australian flag racist, and suggested that it be replaced with the socialist red flag.

New Matilda has reported that La Trobe University’s reasons were as follows. It claims Ward’s conduct had:

a) … Undermined public confidence in the Safe Schools program by undermining public confidence in [her] as a researcher and as a person associated with the Safe Schools program.

b) … Damages the reputation of the Safe Schools program and aligns the Safe Schools program with views which have nothing to do with the program and its message and content.

c) … Has required members of the Victorian Government to take up their time in defending the Safe Schools program, rather than be positive advocates for the Safe Schools program.

d) … Has required senior staff at the University to take up their time in defending the Safe Schools program, rather than be positive advocates for the Safe Schools program or undertake other duties they have.

e) … drawn ([her] colleagues) into the negative publicity around Safe Schools and this has impacted on their ability to continue with their research in a safe environment.

Therefore, the suspension is linked to the fact that Ward’s Facebook post was likely to inflame the controversy which was already surrounding the Safe Schools program. Ward’s post has certainly done so, particularly in News Corp outlets. It also prompted Jeff Kennett, chairman of Beyond Blue, to threaten to withdraw Safe Schools funding unless Ward stepped down from the program.

La Trobe’s actions are very troubling for academics. First, Ward was expressing a legitimate political opinion in her post. People are entitled to criticise the political symbol that is the Australian flag. The “racist” tag is attached by some for the same reason that many liken Australia Day with Invasion Day. Last time I checked it was not unlawful to be a Marxist in this country.

The actual context for the post was that the rainbow flag had been hoisted over the Victorian State Parliament on the day of Premier Daniel Andrews’ apologies for past laws regarding homosexuality. Ward apparently posted a picture of that flag and said:

Now we just need to get rid of the racist Australian flag on top of state parliament and get a red one up there and my work is done.

The last words in particular seem to denote some sort of tongue in cheek, indicating that Ward may have been disciplined over a joke.

Academics (and others) must be able to post such opinions without fear of retribution from their employers. Certainly, some find criticism of the Australian flag offensive, but as a society we must surely be able to tolerate such opinions. Ward is referencing debates that are far from closed. In contrast, La Trobe’s reason a) seems to punish Ward for expressing an unpopular opinion.

Second, the reasons apparently given to Ward link her suspension to the fact that she posted the offending comments in the midst of ongoing controversy over Safe Schools. The implication is that Ward should be “extra careful” with what she says due to that controversy.

La Trobe’s reason b) seems to be requiring Ward to confine her expressed opinions to issues relating to Safe Schools. After all, the offending Facebook post does not explicitly “align” Safe Schools with any point of view.

Reasons c) and d) discipline Ward because the renewed controversy meant that more time was expended on defence of Safe Schools by prominent defenders of the program, namely La Trobe and the Victorian government.

The logic in this reasoning seems to require staff to steer clear of controversy, lest the “time” of very important people in government and the University be wasted.

Most intriguing of all is reason e), indicating that Ward’s post has prompted a backlash against her Safe School colleagues, therefore impacting on their “ability to continue with their research in a safe environment”.

The Safe Schools controversy has been running for months, stoked by News Corp and some occasionally wild commentary from public figures. Senator George Christensen linked the program to paedophilia. In the last week, Australian Christian Lobby head Lyle Shelton likened Safe Schools to Nazi atrocities.

Such hateful commentary is indeed likely to prompt threats and harassment of people associated with Safe Schools, presumably including Ward herself. In that environment, it seems La Trobe is saying that Ward’s post irresponsibly exposed her colleagues (and herself) to even more threats and harassment.

If so, Ward is essentially being told not to “poke the bear” or “inflame the situation”. Of course, such courses of action can lead to unpleasant consequences.

It is possible that the controversy over Ward’s Facebook post has led to unpleasant interactions for her colleagues. But if one believes (as I do) that her original post was unworthy of disciplinary action by her employer, it cannot be turned into an offence worthy of suspension by the anticipation of blatantly unreasonable reactions from others, namely those who are harassing her colleagues. That makes the mob the ruler. It is blaming the victim.

It is possibly ceding the ground of debate over Safe Schools, putting it forever on defence. After all, it is likely that any public comment by Ward on Safe Schools might have “inflamed” the situation.

It is ironic that social media, which seems to hold such promise as a tool for boosting free speech, has apparently led to greater consequences for speaking.

Social media reveals one’s speech to more people, and provides a record of what one has said. It is a shame, however, that the greater exposure of people’s speech seems to have led to greater intolerance of what is said, rather than a greater willingness and ability to debate things that one disagrees with.

Universities, in particular, must not overreact to backlashes against controversial opinions. And this must be true of both “left-wing” and “right-wing” opinions. Universities must remain bastions of robust debate. In that regard, I applaud the University of Melbourne for its explicit policy on Academic Freedom of Expression. It includes the following:

[The university] recognises also that scholars are entitled to express their ideas and opinions even when doing so may cause offence. These principles apply to all activities in which scholars express their views both inside and outside the university.

This incident sends a chill through Australian academia. It is ironic that the safety of Ward’s colleagues is cited as a reason for her suspension. I find it difficult to believe that La Trobe academics feel “safer” because one of their colleagues has been suspended over a political opinion expressed on a Facebook post.

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