Academic freedom from speech

On the evening of Monday 1 October, Age journalist Michael Bachelard rang the office of Workplace Relations Minister Joe Hockey. The call was about a report neither Hockey nor his staff had seen, Australia@Work. Bachelard explained some findings on pay under AWAs. With a deadline approaching, Hockey’s office hurriedly produced a response they didn’t proofread. As Bachelard tells the story:

Twenty minutes later, the minister emailed an official response.

“This report is not credible. It is the same old flawed research from the same old union accedemics (sic). It contradicts far more reliable findings from the ABS. It has (sic) hardly surprising that acdemics (sic) such as John Buchanan and Brigid van Wanrooy, who has previously authored ACTU research, would come up with such a flawed report.”

The next morning, presumably still not having seen the report, but with the task of defending the government’s industrial relations policies, Hockey accused the report’s authors of being ‘former trade union officials who are parading as academics’, who had suddenly released an anti-WorkChoices report just before the election. ‘So you have to look to their motives’, he said. ‘This research is heavily influenced by academics who have done a lot of work for the trade union movement over a number of years.’

To most of us, it looks like just another round of the quick and cheap point-scoring we see every day in Australian politics. 70% of Labor’s front bench are former trade union officials parading as potential Ministers, aren’t they? It’s hard to take seriously.

At universities, however, it seems to be a very serious matter indeed. In The Australian yesterday, University of Sydney Vice-Chancellor Gavin Brown was reported as saying:

“I believe that universities have a sacred trust to do a critique of society.

“I certainly think there should be no undue pressure placed upon researchers. Academic freedom is under attack.”

And Buchanan complains:

Anyone in the IR field who has stuck their heads up lately has been brutally treated by the Government,” he said.

Fellow academics Rae Cooper, Marian Baird, Barbara Pocock and David Peats [sic, means Peetz] had also felt the lash of criticism. …

“This scares researchers,” he said. “If I can’t say things freely as an individual because it might affect my professional (standing), that limits free speech.”

This is not, in fact, a defence of free speech or academic freedom. Instead, it reflects the thinking behind laws prohibiting racial and religious vilification. These laws assume that some groups are so fragile they need freedom from, not of, speech.

Now there is evidence that Buchanan is a fragile character. ‘If the government persists in saying very hurtful and very untrue statements about us we will be left with no other option than to use the protection of the common law [emphasis added]’, he told ABC Radio when saying he might sue for defamation. In a speech of Buchanan’s that The Weekend Australian repulished he said: ‘I didn’t read a newspaper for 2 months after the [2004] election, I could hardly talk to my friends, I was traumatised …’

But the trouble with basing laws or speech norms on the psychologically weakest members of society is that we’ll end up not being able to say very much at all. The possibilities for upsetting people are almost endless.

This is not to deny the obvious point that people say things that are untrue and unfair. But the answer is not a code of silence on certain topics or people. It is more speech – which is what happened in this case, in the many people who jumped to defend Buchanan and his co-authors.

People vary in their ability to cope with negative comment. Only those with high resilience should go into politics or any other profession where controversy is part of the job. Academics who are very sensitive to criticism should perhaps not write reports on areas of major political conflict – or at least not release them shortly before an election in circumstances that look like an ambush. Hockey’s reaction was hardly unpredictable.

The more worrying aspect of this incident is not what Hockey said, but the timidity on display from Vice-Chancellor-level down. Academics possess significant advantages compared to many other people who might want to make a political point. They have few if any employer-imposed restraints on what they can say, they have flexible time schedules that allow for playing politics, they have experience in communication, they have media credibility as experts. Despite their endless complaints about funding, universities have far more money than any interest group, issue movement, political party or think-tank.

Yet it is these less well financed groups that get on with the task of political debate, while academics feel intimidated not by any real threat of punishment or penalty, but by a few careless and rude remarks by a Minister. Academics may feel like martyrs, but they look like wimps.

47 thoughts on “Academic freedom from speech

  1. Andrew, the question isn’t whether academics should feel hurt when attacked in the newspapers, but whether they do feel hurt (ie. take preferences as given). Also, it has to be said that you’ve worked on the Hill and in a thinktank, so you have a thicker skin than most.

    I certainly know of some academics who steer clear of very hot topics because they want to avoid precisely this response. As a result, we don’t always get the best people working on the most important topics – which is a pity.


  2. Touche, Andrew N. I haven’t read their report either, but if it basically says that unskilled wages have fallen and conditions have been lost under Workchoices, this is hardly a surprising or novel finding. The intellectual basis for labour market reform is that it will allow those wages and conditions that are currently above market-clearing levels to fall. No economist would argue otherwise. To the extent that it is only really Coalition politicians who do not concede this (for obvious reasons), anyone who sets out to examine this issue in the lead-up to an election is entering into a political debate and should expect to be treated accordingly: ie Get over it!


  3. Andrew – I’m not sure that we should take preferences as given. People can learn not to worry too much about what others say. They can realise that much of it is not meant too personally – in my experience, for example, personal relations between Liberal and Labor politicians and activists are generally pretty good, despite all the things they say about each other for media consumption. They can understand that most of it is quickly forgotten. Indeed, if Buchanan had not over-reacted and threatened to sue Hockey’s comments would have barely been noticed.


  4. Hi Andrew,
    You appear to be following Hockey’s lead in playing the man and not the ball (“Now there is evidence that Buchanan is a fragile character”).
    It may be that the findings are commonsense but then many academic investigations confirm what we already seem to know, but then some don’t and that’s why we need them.
    What if the report had run counter to commonsense, would Hockey have hit out at the authors or praised them for their accuracy and quality of the research?
    The problem, as Andrew L pointed out, is to do with self-censorship. You have set up a straw man in order to avoid discussing this important point.




  5. Patrick – In this case, the issue is the man. I am not discussing the research in this post (though I did so here and here). I am discussing what counts as a threat to academic freedom. I do not believe that criticism, however robust, counts – however distressing some individuals might find it. The problem here, I believe, is that Buchanan is over-sensitive to politics and criticism. The quotes I provided are evidence on that point.


  6. I’m in the same position as Andrew L on this — most academics I know are not willing to speak up against anything, let alone the government. As a results, we end up with a Stalinesc system where nothing ever gets fixed or done.


  7. I’m with Andrew N on this — this is not a free speech issue and it would plainly be a massive overreaction to try and restrict robust debate to protect the sensibilities of the most sensitive petals among us.
    That said, in this instance yet again Hockey was playing the man and not the ball. (See David Marr’s sometimes overheated but otherwise convincing Quarterly Essay in which he discusses the Hockey attack on Peetz.)
    The real question here is what is the appropriate remedy to this sort of public bullying, and the appropriate remedy is exactly what is happening — academics and others calling Hockey out for playing the man and in the process making sure his comments are seen for that they are.
    It’s a pity Gavin Brown, who was attempting to do just that, has made the mistake of couching his argument in slightly hysterical free speech rhetoric.
    And Conrad, if academics really are too afraid to speak out on contentious issues then I’d argue they’re derelict in their duty to the public and need to learn to get on with it.


  8. Misha, no academic has “speaking out on contentious issues” in their duty statement. We trade off the benefits of doing so (a sense of public service, ego boost, interesting speaking opportunities in the future), against the costs (time spent, possible psychic costs of criticism, time spent responding to critics). Raise the costs, and fewer academics will speak out.

    To give a concrete personal example, I’m interested in minimum wages, but the cost of public involvement in the minimum wage debate is high (regardless of what you find, you can bet ad hominem attacks will follow), so I’m less inclined to get involved in that debate.


  9. Perhaps this discussion again highlights the value of diverse institutions in the ideas market. In the think-tank industry, if you are not controversial you are not doing your job.


  10. Buchanan was attacked for the wrong reasons and his trumpeters ought to walk away embarrassed for him. Buchanan clearly doesn’t understand economics and his academic superior ought to be asking why and what’s going on.

    It seems, this academic has never seen a labor demand curve in his professional life or if he has he doesn’t want to say.

    Here is a total and complete demolition of Buchanan’s “research”. It isn’t pretty watching such a one sided contest as I’m not much into blood sport. It has nothing to do with his socialist leanings either.

    But it does raise a point. How does Buchanan think he could get away with and then crying foul?

    The real question that ought to be asked of him how he could make such glaring omissions in the subject he teaches in?


  11. no academic has “speaking out on contentious issues” in their duty statement

    Many universities do have involvement in civic affairs (and the like) as part of their promotion criteria and also some academics may have public involvement written into their personal workplans and the like. My own employer also has a clause in the EBA whereby academics can speak in public about their area of expertise and all higher education matters.

    In my own instance, as a further example, I was sent to media training by my employer. (This was before some kind person on the ABC website referred to me as an evil, bald, fascist gnome).

    Coming back to Misha’s point, I do think more academics should get out (and get off their backsides) and make more of a contribution to civil society as academics. Afterall, civil society pays a lot of money to universities and can expect a bit of a return from all that money. But then with so much easy money from the government there is no incenive for academics to work hard.

    There was another story in the Higher Ed that attracted my interest – and it is related to this. Many Victorian academics are going on stress leave. Stress leave!!! I tld Mrs D that’s the lev you take after you’ve used up your annual leave and sick leave. Academics are too delicate and bone idle. Mind you, that doesn’t stop heaps and heaps of them lording it over the students.


  12. Thanks for that idea you bald facist gnome :). Next time I want a holiday I’ll claim stress leave, although I keep getting messages telling me I must take holidays anyway. How long can you take it for?
    It doesn’t actually surprise me — there are many stressful elements of the job, and it isn’t just students — a lot is thanks to managment and the zillions of useless evaluations and admistrivia that they seem obliged to inflict on people. I think some people take these far too personally.


  13. Andrew Leigh

    I certainly know of some academics who steer clear of very hot topics because they want to avoid precisely this response.

    Oh the poor lambs. It is a horrifying idea that we should pass legislation to cocoon academics from the rough and tumble of democracy. If Buchanan wishes to engage in brazenly “political” research, by what ethical/scholarly standards could he possibly demand immunity from criticism. Or is it only particular types of criticism?

    He is using his credibility as an academic employed by a prestigious university to affect political dynamics in an election year. If his research is solid, he should champing at the bit for the sort of publicity Hockey has given him. If he is so keen to be a political actor, he should be calling a press conference challenging Hockey to debate the paper. “Go on Joe, make my day!”

    It was the same with Henry Reynolds and Lyndall Ryan. They could not get enough of pollies using their scholarship for political ends during the Keating years, but when that pollie use does not go their way, they burst into tears and run to the courts.


  14. “He is using his credibility as an academic employed by a prestigious university”
    I thought we were talking about people working in Australian universities here, so I’m not sure how the word prestigious slips into the fray.
    More seriously, I think your comments are far too harsh. You can complain all you like, and call people rude things if you want also (which just highlights the problem), but the reality is that not many people are going to do things that they essentially get punished for when they can do a zillion other things where they don’t (especially given that there is esentially no reward for doing so). Thats certainly bad for society in some situations. As an example, one of the guys I used to work with was nice enough to do a few things in the public domain, and subsequently the people he commented on threatened to sue him (amongst other potential retribution). He’s certainly right, and his comments are certainly warranted, but in the end, if I was in that situation, I wouldn’t have bothered (one of the teams I work with OS often gives similar advice, but at least its appreciated there, and you don’t get criticized in a nasty mindless sort of a way, nor punished for giving it). Of course, you could call me a poor lamb (or anything else rude you want) for not doing it, but in the end that doesn’t solve the problem when the problem needs to be solved.


  15. It seems to me that most political rhetoric is incredibly predictable. It frequently involves ad hominem attacks, false dichotomies, emotive labelling and unjustified generalisations. Apparently that’s what resonates with voters. The choice that politicians seem to face (and it’s all politicians, not just a persons political opponents) is between public comments that are full of nuance that no body listens to or highly effective, but logically fallacious, rhetoric. I do not know why any one would expect Hockey, or any politician, to act any differently. The outrage that some express on their blogs, as they proudly point out the logical flaws in a political opponents public comments as though that’s some kind of achievement, in my opinion, leads to a lot of needless frustration.


  16. There is a great deal to be said for the civil exchange of robust arguments but the run-up to an election is not a great time for that kind of thing!


  17. Actually stop having number 1 haircuts, and perhaps stop telling ABC audiences that high-income earners are oppressed by the tax system and deserve more tax cuts. Although it could have been the comment about marriage beng an important contra-indicator of child poverty. Perhaps where I said that I wouldn’t spend the surplus on the environment, hmm – it could have been so many things. As you can imagine, though, I had a great time and the commies didn’t. 🙂 As Ann Coulter says, if you don’t leave the left spluttering with rage, you’re not doing it right.


  18. I cannot understand this argument that academics get intimidated by criticisms and personal attacks, and this scares them off the public arena. I mean should they have priveleges or what? Are you suggesting that academics should have full academic freedoms but politicians and the media shouldn’t have the right of free speach? Sorry I don’t get it.

    It well may be that minister’s comments are distasteful. If so they should hurt the party he represents. Also if he crossed the line and defamed the esteemed academic, he has a full right to sue. Beyond that it is all a red herring.

    What these academics are implying is that they (including AL) are some sort of higher brand of people who should be somehow above criticism. I think they (we) should be treated exactly the same way as any other people involved in public debate.


  19. “I tld Mrs D that’s the lev you take after you’ve used up your annual leave and sick leave. Academics are too delicate and bone idle.

    I am not see this at all, at least not as a common feature. I have very hard time finding a week to take vacation, and so do most of my colleagues. The unused Annual Leave keeps piling up and in danger of being taken away.

    AS for public arena, I would happily share with public my professional knowledge if I thought this may be of some interest to the public. Beyond my core field of expertise I do not think I should waste people’s time with my views (beyond blogs of course:).


  20. Boris — I’m not sure what the solution is, but lots of people I know wouldn’t speak out in public (or, its seems, anywhere), simply out of self interest and the fact universities run a Stalinesc type system where people who do speak out about things get (or believe they will be) punished (whether directly, because they are saying something about where they work, or indirectly, because they think where they work will be in a bad mood for them talking in public).
    Thats bad news (although I don’t know what the solution is), because most universities could probably be run better by monkeys and crappy decisions never get fixed (as an example, the words Singapore and UNSW campus come to mind, as do Monash and everywhere else in the world — do these places not have business faculties? but there are heaps of much smaller bad decisions, which I’m sure you are used to).
    In terms of speaking out in public, the education curriculums are good example of this. Lots of them are quite frankly hopeless, and lots of academics know this (hard-left sociologists that don’t care about science shouldn’t devise curriculum). However, why speak out when these people are just going to cause you trouble (including potentially reject your grants if the work you do might accidentally get to them in a grant application) ?


  21. do these places not have business faculties?

    They do indeed, yet Uni administrator types never take academics advice. As a (former) administrator I was able to get some ideas in. For example, I suggested that the uni consider exchange rate movements when setting prices for interternal students, and I explained to some other senior admin types that demand curve slope down. This was after they said that they had noticed that demand fell off after prices increased and could I say anything about that?


  22. Conrad is raising a separate of self-censorship within universities. Unless academics are saying really stupid things that embarrass the institution academically my feel is that administrators aren’t too worried about it. But because you advance through academia through the say-so of your colleagues, through refereeing and appointment/promotion committees, there are powerful incentives there not to be too critical of them. If I had held an academic job, my criticism of other academics in higher education would have been far more restrained that it has been – there are only a few of them, and they would certainly have been called upon to comment on my work if I was trying to get published in peer-reviewed journals or get promoted.

    As it has turned out, I think there is now a fair amount of mutual respect between me and those people. But as a junior academic I would not have taken the risk.


  23. I am perhaps even more causious than others when expressing my views (upbringing). But I am not so much worried about administrators as about students. I have students from diverse backgrounds and some of my views may be politically incorrect. This may complicate matters with research students. Having said that, this is when I speak outside of my area of experise. My own area is not controlversial (however I do tell them for example what I think of Australian journals etc.)


  24. Conrad (and others) I know the problem exists, but applies to employees in all companies not just academics. Can microsoft employee speak his mind about software licensing or anti-trust issues? Why single out academics? It is certain that some politically incorrect view can indeed affect the reputation of the insitution. The solution is maybe to use a separate pseudonim and not sign your article as Prof. etc. The problem is that many academics do want to emphasise their title, as it gives more weight to their views.


  25. Boris, I have found that even when I don’t emphasise my title (I don’t like doing that anyway) the media will add it in.


  26. Boris, it depends what you mean by title. The term Professor in Australia relates only to level E academics. That could conceivably be interpreted as being associated with the university. The term Doctor is definitely associated with the individual and not the university.


  27. And not all academics are Doctors. Some are Misters (like myself for the moment) or the female equivalent (Miss or Ms or Mrs), which are also definitely associated with the individual and not the university.


  28. Andrew, I think your interpretation of this issue is wrong. Hockey explicitly sought to destroy Buchanan’s professional standing, which is a serious matter.

    Possibly, as a think-tanker, you might see the university’s response as hypocrisy given the way think-tank researchers are routinely accused of bias. That is a legitimate response, but I think a better one is to see the university’s response as a statement on what is right and wrong in public debate, and enlist that position in support of independent think tank research.


  29. I think Tony is on the ball.

    hockey should have said nuttin until his staffers read the paper, instead he simply produced a political response which was ridiculous.


  30. “hockey should have said nuttin until his staffers read the paper, instead he simply produced a political response which was ridiculous.”

    It was ridiculous? So what? Shock and horror! The first ridiculous thing said by a politician!

    A person who enters a public arena should be prepared to take harsh and unfair criticism on the chin. Including academics and Mark Latham.

    The comment by the minister was inadequate, but so was universitie’s response.


  31. Yes, what Boris said. If you enter public debate you can expect some brusing. What did Buchanan think the government was going to say? “oh, yeah. You’re so right. Let’s change the law to reflect your labour markets preferences instead of ours”. Come on.


  32. Tony – I’d have no trouble with the university saying that Hockey’s remarks were ill-informed and unfair. This kind of commentary is a disincentive to making such remarks in the first place, and clarify the position of the researcher. How are people going to believe? A university or a Minister who hadn’t read the report and had an incentive to attack it? But insults do not amount to a threat to academic freedom, and as Boris and Sinclair point out if you enter the realm of partisan politics you have to expect rough treatment. This report wasn’t refereed and was clearly aimed at influencing the election, and so was clearly entering the political realm.


  33. Most academics I know would far rather be criticised – even rudely and ignorantly, as Hockey has – than be ignored. Buchanan should give as good as he gets, not play the shrinking violet.

    In fact amongst all that highly hypocritical humbug from the right about “political correctness” there is one core of truth – that there is no such thing as the right not to be offended.


  34. So how do you guys see this issue interacting with defamation laws? Contrary to some of your claims, our legal system does in fact provide rights to people to protect their reputation.

    In defending Hockey, are you saying that there should be no protections against false accusations at all, or are you simply asserting that this case doesn’t fall within the criteria for defamation?


  35. Tony – I doubt Hockey’s comments would be defamatory under the law. That requires some damage to his reputation, yet in the unlikely event that the reasonable person under the law was paying any attention, would they have lowered their opinion of Buchanan or taken Hockey’s comments with the required scepticism where politicians are concerned? Far from thinking Buchanan to be a shonky researcher, his ultimate employer (Gavin Brown) thinks he is a martyr to academic freedom. As you noted in your original comments, claims about bias are routine – the CIS regularly bats them off without contemplating legal action (admittedly easier for us than Buchanan – we would never accept funding from an interest group with a material interest in the research outcome).

    Hockey’s comments may even be protected political communication.

    Buchanan made the same mistake that countless others with quicker emotions than judgment have made. By threatening to sue he kept the story alive and invited investigation of his own past – with the unflattering results published in The Weekend Australian.


  36. “By threatening to sue he kept the story alive ”

    But maybe he relishes this? As DD said

    Most academics I know would far rather be criticised – even rudely and ignorantly, as Hockey has – than be ignored.


  37. Andrew, Hockey made specific allegations that were false. In my view, a reasonable person would find that those allegations, particularly the implied ones, would diminish Buchanan’s standing, if they were true. Note the views of Buchanan’s employer are not the relevant test here.

    The exemptions for political speech, as I read them, don’t apply in this case. Of course, this is largely an academic discussion now, for Buchanan seems to have decided not to bother with the disruption involved in proceeding to litigation.

    I disagree with the thrust of your comments, which suggests Buchanan was wrong to take a stand on this issue. Honourable people should take a stand on bullying. By his actions, Buchanan has sent a powerful message to Hockey and any of his allies who might consider using this smear in the future.


  38. Tony – Buchanan was right to defend himself, and the intervention of others on his behalf was also appropriate. As indicated by my comments policy, I support civility in public life. But I also think it is naive to think seminar-room standards will always happen in political life – I’m sure Buchanan has never experienced the physical intimidation often tried on people with right-of-centre views by protestors -and you just have to put up with it in a free society. The threat to academic freedom is, IMHO, more from academic timidity than the general political culture.


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