Breaching the boundaries of free speech

The University of Sydney. Photo: Dreamstime.com

RECENTLY I sat down with SBS journalist Marty Smiley to talk about freedom of speech on campus, and about the so-called “deplatforming” phenomenon, writes Joshua Kirsh.

He asked me, in so many words, if it was hypocritical for the Australasian Union of Jewish Students to believe that some speakers should not be welcome on campus, when Israeli speakers we have previously supported have faced calls for boycotts and protest.

For context; the reason we were sitting together at all was because Tim Anderson’s employment at the University of Sydney was terminated. 

After Anderson’s appeal resolved in the negative, our chairperson Josef Wilkinson gave a comment to The Australian Jewish News. To my knowledge, that was the first time AUJS commented publicly about the Anderson fiasco. It was – and continues to be – our view that the university administration was best placed to make this decision. But once Anderson had exhausted all internal avenues of contest and appeal of his decision, it was appropriate for us to make our views known. 

What Tim Anderson did was wrong. The International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance included the use of Nazi symbols when talking about Israel’s policy in its working definition of antisemitism for a reason. From the moment the war ended, white European antisemites began to do what they had always done – draw rhetorically and morally unsound connections between Jews and those who have oppressed and murdered them. By superimposing a swastika over the Star of David on the Israeli flag, Anderson was making the same allegation. 

The use of the swastika sends a tacit message to Jewish students: do not presume to talk about these issues. It encourages Jewish students to keep their mouths closed and their eyes on the door. How do we participate fully in contentious political discourse in class when we know that the symbols of the Holocaust, which hold a devastating place in our histories and our collective memories, will be thrown around with abandon? 

Recently I was in a meeting with the Palestinian Deputy Prime Minister, who made several criticisms of the policies of the State of Israel and not once used antisemitic tropes or canards in order to do it. Why should we expect any less from an Australian academic? 

Tim Anderson’s moral authority to speak about these issues is certainly suspect. His work at the Centre for Counter Hegemonic Studies has attempted to obscure the record on Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad’s use of weapons of mass destruction on his own people. He is a frequent visitor to North Korea, where he readily absorbs (and later relays) the propaganda of the murderous, oppressive Kim regime. 

It was disappointing to hear that the National Tertiary Educators Union (NTEU) is supporting Anderson in his lawsuit against the University of Sydney. Just recently, representatives of the NTEU came out against a proposed speaker on the University of Wollongong (UOW) campus for holding extremist, anti-gay views. I agreed with that stance, and so did our leaders on the UOW campus. It is a shame that antisemitism is abstracted by the NTEU into an issue of academic freedom, rather than the real hate speech with real consequences that it is. 

So much of my work as political affairs director of AUJS has been focused on building inclusive university spaces, where we can interrogate and discuss difficult ideas without throwing marginalised students under the bus for the purpose of “academic freedom”. 

Freedom of speech doesn’t mean freedom from consequences; nor does it mean the freedom to belittle or degrade students because of their background. 

Employment is always, and should always be, conditional. Universities have the right to make decisions about who they employ on the basis of the safety and wellbeing of their students. Sometimes we do not agree with their decisions in this regard; this time, we did. Life doesn’t always adhere to ideology, particularly when it comes to who should or should not have a platform on campus. A case-by-case basis will always give us the right tools to make an appropriate decision. 

So I told Marty that there was no conflict in our views. We don’t believe it is right to invite speakers on campus, or employ lecturers, who believe that hate speech is a normal part of discourse in our university spaces. And we would never bring out or endorse a speaker on campus who engaged in hate speech or encouraged violence against anyone. 

Antisemitism has seen an uptick in the last year; the Executive Council of Australian Jewry measured a 59 per cent increase in its last annual report on the subject. It’s a real problem with real consequences, particularly on campus. 

Sacking Tim Anderson is treating it with the seriousness it deserves. The University of Sydney agrees; I can only hope that the Federal Court will as well. 

Joshua Kirsh is political affairs director of the Australasian Union of Jewish Students.