Academic dream a nightmare

by Chris Griffith
Published 13 November 1994 in The Sunday Mail


my face


Academic research - the purest form of academic freedom - is facing censorship, especially in Queensland, because of a growing fear of costly legal action against universities, researchers, and students.

A combination of tough defamation laws coupled with new Queensland's freedom of information (FOI) laws introduced two years ago has ended the days where students' essays and assignments, even those written only for assessment, were confidential.

According to Professor Roger Holmes, the Deputy Vice Chancellor of Research at Griffith University, the new freedom of information laws potentially allow the public to access even undergraduate assignments.

He says if access was granted, someone aggrieved by the contents could sue the student and the university for damages or defamation.

While he stresses these incidents are isolated, the university and its students are reacting to this latest threat to "academic freedom", that age-old belief that academic discussion and research should be quaranteed from the hurly-burly and political pragmatism of the outside world.

Of course, some academics regard "academic freedom" as a myth. Dr Brian Martin, author of "Intellectual Suppression", says "there is no pure academic freedom".

"No academic work is carried out without some sort of link with vested interests, whether they're direct links with a corporation or an environmental group, through funding or influence."

However the new pressure on Australia's academia can be "exquisitely irresistible", according to Associate Professor Ross Fitzgerald, a well-known Queensland historian and an Australian senior research fellow based at Griffith University.

"It's rarer and rarer to find dissident voices on the staff of universities, and its increasingly difficult for PhD's and scholars to be exploring the truth fearlessly," he said.

"These days universities compete fearcely for government and corporate funding, and increasingly academics are contracting collectively and individually to government and private enterprise, and are funded by private enterprise.

"Sometimes it's a case of not biting the hand that feeds you."

Added to these economic pressures are legal ones. Twenty years ago, it was unheard of for an academic to be sued for something he or she said. They, of course were the days where money in education abounded, when academics and students protested en masse, and where almost anything went.

Now academia itself is a target, a situation that has developed because people today are only too willing to sue.

According to one prominent Sydney-based media lawyer, a favourite target for legal action is academics who "let fly" at conferences and public meetings.

"These days we pay huge amounts of taxes so that politicians, bureaucrats, academics, and others can monitor what's said about them via newspaper clipping services.

"Even if the academic is speaking in a small country town to a small audience, he or she won't necessarily get away with criticising someone - I particularly deal with small country newspapers who land themselves in trouble in this way."

And it is not just what they say or write.

Recently Western Australian anthropologist David Rindos was awarded $40,000 damages in the state's Supreme Court after it ruled an electronic statement by another academic typed onto the international computer network "Internet" was libelist.

According to Martin, academics face other constraints too. He says the federal government's proposed racial vilification laws could well impact on academic comment and research, despite assurances the laws target only extreme vilification.

"The racial vilification laws are designed to stop extreme attacks which might stimulate violence but they might be used to stop scholarly discussion of, say, Aborigines and drunkenness," Dr Martin said. "The danger is these laws may be used differently from what was intended."

However the combination of defamation and freedom of information laws appears as a broader threat to the sanctity of academic research.

In 1992 Alexandra de Blas was an undergraduate environmental science student completing her honours year at the University of Tasmania.

Her research thesis, on the environmental impact of mining activities on MacQuarie Harbour, included evidence of unacceptably high mercury concentrations in fish.

Her thesis concluded the company, Mount Lyell Mining Company, was a contributing factor to "a detrimental impact on MacQuarie Harbour".

However after examining the thesis, the company threatened legal action should the university allow anyone to see, hear, or even know about the study.

The university had already marked her thesis, and she was awarded first class honours.

Ms de Blas said the university initially delayed then refused to publish her work. Her thesis had in the meantime been referred to the university's Mining Department. She said the university initially had not sought its own legal advice on whether her thesis could be published.

In the end her work was published, some 15 months later, in May this year - not by the University of Tasmania, but by the Centre for Independent Journalism in Sydney in support of Ms de Blas's "academic freedom and the public's right to know".

Despite its earlier threats, the mining company did not take legal action.

"The work was never defamatory in the first place," Ms de Blas said. "That's what my own legal advice was. There were defences for everything."

However at Griffith University the problem appears deeper and is fueled by the administration's concern that even a private, embargoed section of a thesis can be released under Queensland's freedom of information law.

Professor Holmes said only on rare occasions would he delay the marking of students' work because of its potential for legal action.

"That would be one of my responsibilities, not to hold it up indefinitely, but to suggest to the supervisor and to the student that they need to consider the consequences of it," he said.

"We prefer to have PhD theses containing material which is subject to open criticism, and open evaluation as a thesis, and hopefully subject to a publication in some form.

Tragically, it is not only the university administrations who are involved in this censorship exercise. Students themselves are taking steps to avoid any hint of legal action and the enormous financial ramifications that could bring.

Natalie Gallery, another Griffith University PhD student, was threatened with legal action after writing a magazine article which discussed problems she had uncovered in a Brisbane superannuation fund. The article was based on material she had gathered for her thesis.

"I had hoped to incorporate that case study into my doctoral thesis, but for other reasons I have decided not to include this and another case study in my thesis," she said.

"However if at a later stage I decided to reincorporate the case studies, I will have to deal with a problem of how to do so without running the risk of litigation by one or more organisations identified in my research.

"It may be easier to simply work my thesis around excluding that study."

Ms Gallery's view is shared by her colleague, Mr Divesh Sharma, who is writing a PhD thesis on "corporate distress", a study of how to predict the demise of companies.

"Even including a name of a company in a thesis is a problem," Mr Sharma said.

"We generally do not publicise or predict that a company would close because of any possible [legal] action in the future," he said.

However in his case Mr Divesh does admit there is a catch-22, because such a predictions could directly cause a company failure.

"If we publicise this as research, we could arouse the market and it could cause company failure. We wouldn't want to be responsible for that, but we do want people to know the benefit of our research. It's a catch-22 situation."

If Mr Divesh is right, it may not be academia that sounds the alarm bells the next time a latter-day Christopher Skase or Allan Bond starts to take a financial nose-dive, or when a major state or national corporation heads for receivership.

According to Brian Martin, it also may not be a university that exposes the next bout of government corruption for "the obvious reason that governments are providing the funds and it is a bit too close to the bone!"

It is important to point out that Professor Holmes concerns are not universally held. His counterpart at the University of Queensland, Professor David Siddle, its Dean of Post Graduate Studies, says he is "unaware of problems along those lines".

However the challenge remains for universities to defend the independence of their research or, as Ms Gallery says "run the risk of failing to address the real issues".

by Chris Griffith