Places of open debate or ‘echo chambers of orthodox creeds’

The need for universities to maintain and encourage open debate, particularly in matters of controversy, was recently the subject of a talk for the Academy of Law by Robert French, Australia’s former Chief Justice.[1] 

The topic has wider relevance, including to the professions. 

Austin Asche Oration, Free Speech and the Law on Campus 17.9.2018 (3)

His paper covers the right of free speech and its limitations in the particular context of universities, traversing hate speech, unpopular speakers, and the former Attorney’s comment that ‘people have a right to be bigots’. He refers to the legal requirement for tertiary providers to uphold ‘free intellectual inquiry in relation to learning, teaching and research’.

Mr French concludes that there should be a ‘very high threshold’ in preventing speech on campus by reference to its content, and for any consequent disciplinary action, unless it breaches the general law.  The

‘better approach is to encourage and maintain a robust culture of open speech and discussion even though it may involve people hearing views that they find offensive or hurtful’.


One by-product of educating students is the creation of better citizens –

‘that is to say, people who can take their place in public civic discourse, help to form public values and public policy and to choose the officials who manage public affairs …. [as] but responsible contributors to civic life’.

While Mr French focused on universities, there is also a need to ensure those who want to continue to apply their liberal thinking not only to working in their chosen discipline – whether it be law, medicine or any other such calling – but also to progressing and if necessary challenging and working for change in that discipline.

In law and ethics, on many issues, ‘minds will differ’, and ideas will be promoted that may not accord with promoted standards, or not serve the commercial interests of the profession, or be critical of the way the system is administered.  Professional bodies and even industry bodies should promote that culture among their members, not constrain it.

The alternative is ‘to make them echo chambers of orthodox creeds’.[2]

Mr French’s paper is commended for itself, and its broader import.

[1] Free Speech and the Law on Campus — Do we need a Charter of Rights for Universities? 8th Austin Asche Oration in Law and Commerce, hosted by Charles Darwin University and the Australian Academy of Law. The Hon Robert French AC, 17 September 2018, Darwin.


[2] Citing K E Whittington, Speak Freely: Why Universities Must Defend Free Speech (Princeton University Press, 2018).


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