(Credit: Greg O'Beirne / Wikimedia)

Chicago Statement finds foothold in Australia

By August 21, 2018

A controversy over the scheduling — and subsequent cancellation — of an Australian Family Association event could lead to a positive outcome at the University of Western Australia: adoption of the Chicago Statement.

Earlier this month, the university initially defended its decision to rent one of its venues to the Australian Family Association, which opposes same-sex marriage and is “concerned with the strengthening and support of the family.” The AFA planned to feature Quentin Van Meter, president of the American College of Pediatricians, “a small conservative group known for its opposition to gay marriage, gender reassignment, pre-marital sex and abortion.”

After news broke of the AFA event, Vice Chancellor Dawn Freshwater emailed the campus community to explain UWA’s decision to allow it to go forward:

“The university considers that cancellation of the AFA event would create an undesirable precedent for the exclusion of objectionable views from the campus,” she said.

“There is an ongoing task to be undertaken within the university about the development of workable principles which strike a balance between the values of respect for human dignity on the one hand and freedom of opinion and expression on the other.”

But on Aug. 16, UWA reversed course, announcing that the event had been canceled because “the risk surrounding the event has been elevated to a higher level, which mandates a more robust event management plan,” and that the AFA was “unable to provide the requested information to meet the venue hire conditions.” However, UWA maintained that it “holds firm on the principles of freedom of expression and maintains its position that it does not wish to set a precedent for the exclusion of objectionable views from the campus.”

After the cancellation, Freshwater reiterated her interest in adopting a set of principles to guide UWA in handling debates over freedom of speech. According to Freshwater, “I personally, and as the vice-chancellor of this university, do not believe that censorship of opinion is the right way to solve issues.” Indeed, Freshwater cited the University of Chicago’s Report of the Committee on Freedom of Expression — the “Chicago Statement” — as an example UWA could follow.

The Chicago Statement has increasingly found popularity at American campuses since its launch in 2015; 44 universities have adopted or endorsed the Chicago Statement, or a set of principles inspired by it.

While the Chicago Statement has been championed primarily by American universities, its adoption by institutions around the world would be an important step forward for academic freedom and freedom of expression — especially in areas where speech rights are limited, and public support for freedom of speech is desperately needed.

FIRE hopes to see UWA and other universities continue to consider the Chicago Statement. If you would like to encourage adoption of a statement on free expression at your university, contact FIRE!