When freedom of speech means only one opinion is allowed

“Our universities are so determined to impose tolerance that they’ll expel you for saying what you think and never notice the irony”. This is one of my favourite quotes by American poet John Perry Barlow. It brings to mind a particular history honours class in which our tutor asked us whether we believe in ‘truth’. A student immediately answered; “Well, all throughout university we are told there is no such thing as truth, so I guess no I don’t believe in truth.” I expressed my disagreement with this comment, and the room was silent, as students stared at me in disbelief.

Before we begin our university years, we are told to expect a free-thinking academic experience, where we will be challenged to fight for our views, enjoy healthy debate with people who hold a variety of opinions, and that we will be able to express ourselves freely, without judgement. It was therefore incredibly disappointing to discover that the reality can be quite the opposite. There are many university lecturers and tutors who encourage healthy debate, and I do not intend to generalise about the profession at large. I have certainly been shut-down by academic staff before, but more often, the intolerance seems to stem from the powerful student groups, as shown in the particularly negative response provided by students trying to shut down the new ‘LifeChoice’ group at the University of Sydney.

The University of Sydney Union (USU) narrowly approved LifeChoice last week, in a vote 6-5. I applaud the chairwoman of the USU, Ms Matthews, who cast the deciding vote to approve the group, therefore staying true to what universities should idealistically support – freedom of speech. Indeed LifeChoice falls precisely into the category of this age old university ideal, promoting “reasonable and informed discussion on the issues of abortion and euthanasia in Australian society”.

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