Kieran Pender

Open Minds: Academic freedom and freedom of speech in Australia by Carolyn Evans and Adrienne Stone with Jade Roberts

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April 2021, no. 430

Across the Anglosphere, academic freedom is in crisis. That, at least, is the conclusion one draws from reading conservative newspapers and listening to right-wing politicians. Boris Johnson’s government, concerned about ‘unacceptable silencing and censoring on campuses’, recently announced plans to appoint a ‘free speech champion’ for British universities. In 2019, Donald Trump signed an executive order to protect free speech on campus, describing it as a ‘historic action to defend American students and American values that have been under siege’. In February 2021, the Australian government amended higher education legislation to redefine academic freedom, amid shrill calls from the Institute of Public Affairs (IPA) about the ‘free speech crisis at Australia’s universities’.

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At the time of writing, Julian Assange – an Australian citizen – is detained at Her Majesty’s Prison Belmarsh in Thamesmead on the outskirts of London. Belmarsh is a high-security facility; Assange’s fellow inmates are terrorists, murderers, and rapists. The WikiLeaks founder is being held in solitary confinement, permitted out of his cell for just one hour each day. His crime? Assange is awaiting the outcome of extradition proceedings, in relation to charges brought against him by the US government. In 2019, he was indicted on one count of computer hacking and seventeen counts of violating the Espionage Act (1917) for his role in obtaining and publishing military and diplomatic documents in 2010.

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The timing was apt. In September, Fake Law: The truth about justice in an age of lies – written by pseudonymous British writer ‘The Secret Barrister’ – was published in Australia. The same month, President Donald Trump nominated Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court of the United States following the untimely death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg. From two legal systems that have historically influenced ours came salutary warnings about the ill effects of law’s politicisation.

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The Road by John Martinkus & Too Close to Ignore edited by Mark Moran and Jodie Curth-Bibb

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September 2020, no. 424

It is a damning – if not altogether surprising – indictment on our public discourse that the average Australian knows far more about political and social developments on the other side of the world than about those occurring in our ‘near abroad’. It takes just fifteen minutes to travel in a dinghy from the northern most island in the Torres Strait to Papua New Guinea. The flight from Darwin to Timor-Leste lasts barely an hour. If visitors were permitted in Indonesian-controlled West Papua, the trip from Australia to Merauke, by plane from Darwin or boat from the Torres Strait, would not take much longer. Yet judging by the sparse coverage these regions receive in our press and by their minimal prominence in our politics, they might as well be on Mars.

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There is a senior partner at my firm who famously harasses young women particularly when he has been drinking at social events. I was groped on two separate occasions. Nothing was done about it the first time I reported it. I did not report it the second time.

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As with many authors, Covid-19 forced Catherine Bond to cancel the launch event for her new book. But unlike most authors’ work, the contemporary relevance of Bond’s latest book has been considerably heightened by the ongoing pandemic. Indeed, in the midst of this crisis it is hard to imagine a historical text timelier than Law in War: Freedom and restriction in Australia during the Great War. A century later, lessons from that era are still instructive today.

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Whistleblowing has a long history. The Ancient Greeks had a term for it: parrhēsia, or fearless speech. In the seventh century, a British king introduced the world’s first whistleblowing law, encouraging his citizens to report those who worked on the Sabbath. Ever since the phrase ‘whistleblower’ was coined in the 1970s, the concept has gained renewed salience. In an era of widespread fraud and corruption, those prepared to speak up perform an essential service to society.

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Cass Sunstein, a noted American constitutional scholar, once lamented: ‘The notion that the government may control information at its source is at odds with the idea that the purpose of a system of free expression is to control the conduct of representatives.’ In a liberal democracy – supposedly of the people, by the people, for the people – political opacity is inconsistent with the central premise of government.

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It is a famous parable. If a frog is dropped in boiling water, it will immediately leap out. But if placed in tepid water that is gradually heated, the frog will not notice the increasing temperature until it is boiled alive. The parable may be biologically inaccurate, but it remains instructive in the context of civil liberties ...

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This is an unusual book. It is, so the title indicates, about guns and firearm regulations in Australia, with some comparison to the United States. But, as a prefatory note to readers cautions, ‘this book is less about guns and more about the continuing tension between the authority and power of the state and the responsibilities and entitlements of citizens ...

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