Published in Campus Review, 16-22 October 1996, p. 32
A DRAFT document on the question of when academic staff may make public comment is circulating at James Cook University.
The university has a "clear interest in the content of public comments made by members of staff acting in their professional capacity, and of comments made about staff acting in that capacity," the document says.
Produced by former JCU vice-chancellor Professor Ray Golding, it suggests a code of conduct saying the university expects its staff to ensure their public comment:
Staff members are free to make public comment as private citizens, but such comment must not involve any use of the university arms, emblem or letterhead or make explicit their association with the university.
The document classifies types of public comment: official, professional and private, as well as comments made via electronic communications.
It details the appropriate authorisations that must be obtained before being able to make official comment on behalf of the university, but it is the guidelines on professional comment which have drawn the most heated response from staff.
Academic staff members have a right to make public comment that makes explicit their association with the university, but only where such comment is made in a scholarly or professional capacity.
The document then goes on to advise that:
Dr Henry Reynolds, an Australian Research Council senior research fellow based at JCU and a frequent national commentator on Aboriginal issues, described the document as unacceptable and inappropriate.
"It is unacceptable that people can't criticise the university. It is absurd and ridiculous," Reynolds said.
"It may be the intention or not, but compliance would bring the public commentary in which I am engaged to an end."
Reynolds said anything could be construed as "sensitive" and that it was quite ridiculous for a grown academic to have to go to a head of department for his or her comment.
"As for interdisciplinary topics, I would have thought everything is. If you have got to canvass your colleagues, it could take a week, and that is assuming you could come to a common viewpoint."
Timing is everything in terms of responding to media queries and, as interviews are never scripted, consulting with community relations would be a waste of time and inhibit taking part in a given debate, he said.
He also questioned whether if a university was able to disassociate itself from an academic's public comment that academic could then turn around and disassociate the university from their output of serious publications.
Asked if he thought the university may feel the need to develop the policy to protect itself from legal action, Reynolds said every university faced that situation.
"Every media outlet does not shut down because they are afraid they might be sued. I think the university has to commit itself and be willing to confront the people who use the law as an intimidatory weapon."
James Cook University registrar Robin Gulliver said the policy document came out of discussions that took place at council when a number of James Cook staff members were part of the public debate surrounding the Keith Williams plan to develop a resort at Point Hinchinbrook.
"The vice-chancellor of the time, Professor [Ray] Golding, undertook to have a policy prepared so that the university situation could be clarified," Gulliver said.
The document would now be revised and sent to the November meeting of the academic board, he said.
"There has been a certain amount of comment in the university that such a policy is not needed. Academic board might decide that it is not needed and may advise council that way. Council may adopt a policy or it may not. It is difficult to say at this stage."
Gulliver said debate on the policy had brought attention to the fact that litigation could arise from academics making public comments.
"Even if we don't have a policy, we will have guidelines which will indicate when staff are covered by the university's insurers and when they are not."
He said a lot of the debate had been generated by a sense that staff had a right to speak on anything, the traditional role of the academic, but that they can fall back on the university when legal action results.
"If a staff member speaks outside their area of expertise, they might be out on their own and that has to be acknowledged."
Professor John Hay, vice-chancellor of the University of Queensland, has said he would do all he could "to encourage staff to maintain regular contacts with the media, because I see this as a key means of forging even stronger links with the local and wider communities".
Suppression of dissent website
in the section on Documents
in the subsection on Australian university speech codes