Right-wing hypocrisy on free speech

13 May 2024
James Plested
Police arrest students at Columbia University in New York on 30 April PHOTO: Charly Triballeau/AFP

Conservatives in Australia and around the world love attacking universities for their supposed “woke” culture and failure to protect free speech. The Coalition government under Scott Morrison was so concerned about the issue that, in 2018, it commissioned a formal inquiry into it. And in the years since, right-wing politicians, commentators, and institutions like the Institute for Public Affairs (IPA) haven’t ceased talking about what they claim is a “crisis of free speech” on campuses.

Last year, the IPA released its Free Speech on Campus Audit 2023. It found (unsurprisingly, given this exercise in propaganda involved little that resembled genuine research) that restrictions on free speech abounded. Among other things, the IPA complained that “freedom of expression is put at risk by university policies which prohibit a wide variety of speech including ‘insulting’, ‘unwelcome’ and ‘offensive comments’”. It also warned against the adoption of free speech codes which “restrict speech deemed ‘unsafe’”.

Right-wingers are avowed enemies of the notion that students should be protected in any way from ideas or speech they may find offensive or that make them feel unsafe. Given this, you might have expected that when students in the US, Australia and around the world began exercising their right to free speech by protesting in support of the Palestinians, right-wingers would have defended their right to do so—even if some students were upset by it.

And when the university managers attempted to silence the students, as they have so brutally in the US—using violence to repress the students’ political expression—you would have expected right-wingers to be up in arms. Isn’t this precisely the repressive, offense-adverse culture of universities they continually complain about? Isn’t this cancellation at its worst and most violent?

Apparently not. Instead of celebrating the flourishing of free speech that the campus pro-Palestine encampments represent, the right have been united in their calls for harsh repression by university authorities and, where that fails, the police.

This has been most stark in the US. There, neither liberals nor conservatives have had any qualms about bringing the full force of the law down on the heads of the students. Starting with Columbia University in New York, the site of the first Gaza solidarity encampment, masses of police have been mobilised to smash up protests. As of 9 May, more than 2,000 protesters had been arrested, and many injured.

In Australia too, right-wing politicians like Peter Dutton have pushed universities to crack down on the campus protests. In an interview with radio station 2GB on 9 May, Dutton equated Palestine supporters chanting “from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” with “what Hitler chanted in the 1930s”, and he has repeatedly called on universities and the government to do more to repress the student encampments.

The Liberals’ education spokesperson Senator Sarah Henderson similarly described the pro-Palestine encampments at universities as “intolerable”. Talking to Sky News on 9 May, she claimed to believe that “free speech and academic freedom are fundamental on university campuses”, but then wheeled out, by way of justification for a crackdown, the completely ludicrous and unfounded claim that other students’ “right to go about [their] studies peacefully” was being threatened. The universities themselves contradict this claim—one of the reasons they have not been able to crack down on the protests is that they do not violate the universities’ codes of conduct, which include prohibitions on violence towards other students.

Even the erstwhile free speech warriors at the IPA have switched overnight into the pearl-clutching, “call the police” camp. In an 2 May article for the Financial Review, current IPA senior fellow and former executive director John Roskam said it was “wishful thinking” to assert that the Australian Palestine encampments are peaceful, and implied that criminal charges should be laid against students.

This hypocrisy points to the real reason for the right’s claimed concern with “free speech” at universities. It’s not really a concern about “freedom” or “free speech” in general. Instead, it’s exclusively about the ability of the right to effectively promote and propagate its ideas on university campuses, as well as in the mainstream media, schools, churches and all the other places where conservatives are accustomed to having their views predominate.

The right abhors the fact that in the much degraded, but still relatively free atmosphere of intellectual engagement and exchange that exists at universities, progressive and left-wing views tend to prevail, particularly in disciplines like the humanities. It hopes that by constantly complaining about the supposed university “free speech crisis” it will pressure universities to somehow tip the scales of debate to the right, creating a “safe space” for fragile and under-confident right-wingers to speak their minds and counter the hegemony the left enjoys over political life at many campuses. These are the institutions training the future politicians, state administrators, commentators and CEOs, after all—attendees need to be hardened up to run the system, not learning to care about dead Palestinian children.

The right simply cannot tolerate an area of society where their politics aren’t accepted as gospel and challenges to their authority are dismissed as fringe concerns. So when they complain about the stifling of conservative speech on campuses, it’s more a matter of right-wingers feeling resentful that they are isolated and that a large majority of their fellow students are likely to find their views repugnant. This is less a matter of so-called “cancel culture” than one of “cowardice culture” on the part of the right—of being intimidated out of voicing particular opinions by the likely social consequences of doing so.

Seen in this light, the right’s unceremonious junking of its professed commitment to free speech in the context of student pro-Palestine protests makes perfect sense. If your aim isn’t to foster free speech as such, but merely to promote an atmosphere in which right-wing speech can flourish, then the situation on campuses today is dire indeed. Instead of feeling safer and more confident to express their views, supporters of Israel’s genocide in Gaza and other campus right-wingers are running scared.

What Israel is doing in Gaza is so thoroughly indefensible that there’s no hope of winning anyone much to support them through open debate and discussion. The right can go some way to addressing this problem in broader society via a constant barrage of pro-Israel propaganda from politicians and the media. The brave stand made by students at universities around the world means that there, stronger measures are necessary.

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