Yesterday we here at Pelican published an article detailing the university’s decision to allow an event run by the Australian Family Association to be hosted at Octagon Lecture Theatre.
Later that afternoon every student received an email signed off by both Dawn Freshwater and Robert French. This email acknowledged the concerns from those who wanted the event cancelled and that the opinions of the event’s speakers’ were not endorsed.
But while the speakers’ views were at odds with the university’s values of respect for human dignity and diversity. The university made clear that to cancel said event would set “an undesirable precedent for the exclusion of objectionable views from campus.”
We decided to see what some of our editors and other prominent student figures at UWA made of this decision.
Megan Lee – 2018 UWA Student Guild President
Needless to say students are very much disappointed in this response. There definitely needs to be a robust discussion about academic freedom at universities but we all strongly belief there is a difference between a robust debate on a topical and potentially controversial issue and a debate on whether a section of our society should exist. Whilst it’s one thing for the university to say they are not in support of the AFA’s views, it’s not in line with their own policy on Transgender people to continue forward with this event.
The policy says “UWA aims to create a trans-friendly culture, free from discrimination and harassment, where all staff and students are treated with dignity and able to realise their full potential in a fair and inclusive workplace and learning environment.
UWA condemns all forms of harassment, including discrimination and bullying. Strict disciplinary action is imposed if any student or staff member is found to have harassed another member of the UWA community. In addition to UWA policies, the University is bound by legislation which makes harassment unlawful.” Whilst this is a ‘private’ event booking utilizing UWA spaces, these are still our learning environments and our learning resources that are being utilized by what can be argued to be a bonafide hate group.
Initially I had suspected that this was an oversight, a gravely unfortunate circumstance where someone didn’t bother to google the Organisation making the booking, however the actions of the university or rather the inaction of the university to rectify and repair the pain they have caused is disappointing. The message they are sending is that they value the idea of ‘two sides to the story’ over the identity and dignity of their students.
There are no two sides to this discussion. Trans people are people, they do not need to be ‘cured’ or changed as this event wishes to discuss. It is incredibly disheartening that the university has failed to recognize this. Any discussion on Trans issues should prioritize the voices of Trans people and activist, not bigots with university degrees.
Dylan Perkins – 2018 UWA Guild Pride Officer
I very much don’t believe choosing to defend “freedom of speech” over the right of minority groups to live and survive with dignity is a legitimate stance by the University executive.
I’m a strong believer in free speech. I think it’s vitally important for people to be allowed to stand up and tell the truth. Journalists, activists, artists – all these people rely on free speech to have their messages heard. But in our post-Trump, post-truth age I feel like this whole situation is a perfect example of the kind of slippery slope we need to avoid. The Australian Family Association and its speakers would use their free speech to attack and vilify a vulnerable group in society, and stoke up hatred against them. We can’t stop them saying these things, or thinking these things, but we certainly don’t need to hand them a megaphone and give them a platform to stand on. In fact, if we are said to be a just society then we need to do the opposite, and focus our efforts on empowering repressed minorities and giving THEM a platform on which to speak.
The response by the University executive was really disappointing, and I think it has all the hallmarks of them wanting to have their cake and eat it too. You can’t say that you support LGBT+ rights, and proudly state that you fly the Pride flag, and then simply ignore us when a tough situation arises. We are not willing to be the University’s diversity mascots that can be trotted out when they want to show how progressive they are, but otherwise ignored. We are human, and we demand rights.
Ishita Mathur – Diversity Sub-Editor
The right to a platform should not be absolute. Robert French and Dawn Freshwater’s recent email citing freedom of opinion and expression as the reason behind the hosting of the Australian Family Association’s transphobic event is nothing new. Freedom of speech has long been used as a crutch by the morally flexible to allow hate speech to flourish on campuses, in private organisations, and in the public eye. To the morally sound, this is common sense, however it is apparently too difficult of a concept for our university execs to grasp.
The recent email that has been sent out to the students is a public relations effort to show that the university isn’t endorsing the views being held by the AFA. The issue isn’t whether the university endorses the event – the issue is why they have been invited to have a place on our campus in the first place. It’s not news that transphobic rhetoric only serves to make our campus unsafe and uninviting to transgender students, which is especially egregious when UWA hypocritically flies the LGBT+ flag in front of Winthrop Hall for good press. Trans and non-binary students already face enough problems in their lives without also having to navigate the mire of transphobia at their place of study.
If UWA really does care for its LGBT+ students, it wouldn’t host an event such as this that would impact their mental health, safety and right to exist with dignity. Just last May, UWA achieved platinum status for LGBT+ inclusion and diversity at the 2017 Australian LGBT+ Inclusion and Diversity Awards. If this event goes ahead, this status may as well be stripped considering UWA only cares for symbolic gestures that serve to make them look good rather than stand up for their students in a meaningful way. I guess UWA has no backbone when it comes to standing up for the underdogs and not accepting money from alumni who have too much time on their hands.
It’s 2018. We no longer just want equality. We don’t want transphobes to have the same right to a platform as the people they oppress under the pretext of ‘freedom of speech’. We want equity. We want to ensure that university resources and policies are directed appropriately to reduce the disadvantages that affect our most vulnerable students. Banning this event wouldn’t set an “undesirable precedent for the exclusion of objectionable views from campus,” but you know what would set an undesirable precedent? Letting this event happen, allowing hate speech and misinformation to spread, and making our campus an unsafe place.
UWA needs to step up or be prepared to face the consequences.
Charlotte Glance – Youth Pride Network representative
The Youth Pride Network condemns hosting the American Family Association on campus. Trans and gender diverse people experience some of the highest levels of violence in our community. As an advocacy group we hear countless stories from Trans young people about the almost daily harassment and discrimination they face. This includes stories of struggling to work and study at university. Society often thinks that violence against Trans individuals is acceptable because of the narratives woven by groups like the AFA. By allowing a group like the AFA on campus the university is giving them a platform to continue to disseminate unscientific and hateful views.
UWA has a responsibility to its Trans and gender diverse staff and students to make them feel safe on campus. By allowing groups like this to spread hate they are normalising violence against their LGBTIQA+ students. We believe freedom of speech means that these individuals are allowed to hold these views, however organisations like the university have no obligation to give these individuals a platform for them to preach hate and violence further.
Thomas Coltrona – Sub-editor
The fatal flaw of the University’s argument, in agreeing to host the AFA, is that they think by turning these people away they will create a precedent for other speakers to be turned away if a group object to them. First of all, they already created this precedent by turning away climate contrarian Bjorn Lomborg. UWA confuses the fact that a University is meant to be a forum for a discussion so that people can be educated in order to further the public interest. If this were a scientific issue, and climate change sceptics or anti-vaccination advocates were conducting a conference, no doubt the university would be happy turning these people away, because the message they promote is not in the public interest. As a society coming to greater acceptance of the LGBTI community, allowing the AFA to be hosted by UWA goes against the public interest and therefore they should exercise their discretion, as they have previously and turn these people away.
Secondly, the comparison of human rights by UWA is shameful. There is a reason that human dignity and equality is Article 1, it is considered the most important and inalienable right. LGBTI people already face commentary and abuse of the likes propagated by the AFA in general society, and their daily lives. They shouldn’t have to attend classes with the knowledge that their university has condoned allowing more of this within the walls of their institution.
Matthew Maltman – Sub-editor
The AFA are scientifically wrong and morally repugnant. But we don’t move past bigotry and repugnant views by pretending they don’t exist. Maliciousness exists, and you must understand it, so you can try to destroy it at its very core.
Free speech is the founding principal of all liberal democratic civilizations. UWA is not a private institution, it is public and open to everyone and all ideas, however wrong they may be. They must remain that way at all costs. The question must never become what is and isn’t acceptable by government and by government institutions.
Let’s take anti-vaxxers for example. We need to hear them speak so we can understand the flaws in their scientific method. We must understand them so we can make sure other people vaccinate their kids.
Universities serve the public interest. It’s in the public interest to:
- Understand bad ideas so we’re aware they exist.
- Understand why bad ideas are bad so we don’t believe them
- Understand how people come up with bad ideas to prevent others from coming to the same conclusion.
And we can’t have that if we don’t hear the bad ideas. Its why people read Mein Kampf, and research the Soviet Union. We need to understand bad ideas to prevent ourselves and others from making the same mistakes. You must hear these people speak as to understand how they could treat other human beings they way they do.
The appropriate response from the student body and the science faculty should be organising their own event in direct rebuttal to everything the AFA raises. The student body and wider community has been and should continue to throw their support behind those under attack. The University must assure the LGBT+ community they are valued. That way we can minimize harm without destroying free speech.
But if UWA prevents the AFA from speaking it sets a dangerous precedent. Universities are a pillar of liberal democracy. They are a pillar of free speech and debate. Bad ideas are defeated with words, not silence.
Joshua Cahill – Editor
Let’s be very clear. These views don’t further discourse. This shouldn’t be a hot take. These discussions fundamentally undermine the existence of another group. Plain and simple. They shouldn’t be defined as free speech, and to do so flies in the face of important discourse that free speech SHOULD protect.
From my perspective this was an opportunity for the university to stand up for those too often ignored in society. Yet they choose margins over the marginalised. Over 5000 people used their free speech to outline that events like these don’t create an inclusive environment and given the choice the university should have defend the freedom for all individuals to be treated equally, rather than use free speech as a justification for what is plainly hate speech veiled in pseudoscience.
We validate ideas by the space we give them in our buildings, in our publications and in our inboxes. The decision by UWA to justify holding an anti-transgender event on a campus that exists thanks to fees paid by students, some of whom who identify with the LGBTQIA+ community and most who are allies to that community, in the name of free speech is heartbreaking. Because it assumes that there is starting point of a conversation where trans people are not people, that this discussion still needs to be had. It doesn’t. Shame on you, UWA, for taking money to legitimise hate speech and dressing it up as free speech.