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University changes to academic contracts are threatening freedom of speech

Katharine Gelber writes in The Conversation (12.10.16) about moves by some universities, amid encouragement from the federal government for more ‘outreach’ from universities to the wider community, to curb acadmics’ freedom to speak out on matters of public importance.

‘Some universities are attempting to insert new clauses into their employment contracts that aim to limit academics’ ability to speak freely in public debate.

‘All universities acknowledge the role that academics have in public engagement. The University of Sydney for example, states that staff “are encouraged to engage in debate on matters of public importance”. The University of Queensland states that staff are encouraged “to contribute to public debate and media comment”.

‘Universities recognise that staff are free to make public commentary, as long as it does not prevent them carrying out their normal duties – and as long as they do not claim to be speaking on behalf of the university.

‘There are also usually other limits imposed on academics’ ability to comment publicly, such as not engaging in harassment, vilification or defamation.

‘However, it has been reported that some universities are trying to extend or redefine misconduct to prevent academics from speaking out on any matter that is not directly confined to their area of expertise.’

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