The inaugural St George’s College-Forrest Hall Riverside Chat was held at Forrest Hall on Wednesday 1st August.
Professor Paul Johnson, Warden of Forrest Hall and former UWA Vice-Chancellor, kindly hosted the evening and addressed College residents, and answered their questions, on ‘Freedom of Speech on Campuses’. His talk and answers were wide-ranging and strongly presented. He made a call to arms for the protection of free speech and the promotion of rational, evidence-based discussion throughout society. He particularly believes that, more than ever, universities have to perform an active and unabashed role in promoting their position as places that defend debate and free speech, emphasise the crucial importance of the acquisition of expertise, and develop and test ideas in the pursuit of reasoned progress. He stressed that freedom of speech should be within the bounds of legality, codes of ethical conduct, and not hateful. His experiences of challenges to free and dispassionate debate and discussion at UWA and other universities were enlightening, as he reflected the detail of complicated issues. He addressed the difficulties of social media and ‘fake news’.
Professor Johnson drew on a wide range of areas where free speech becomes disputed, from university ‘no platforming’ and ‘safe spaces’ to climate change, fundamentalist religious speakers and childhood vaccination. He commented that often reasoned argument is abandoned in these debates. The role of universities as champions of rational, evidence-based debate is more crucial than ever in these contexts.
It was a fine and thought provoking evening, and it is hoped the first of many reciprocal Riverside and Fireside Chats, as well as other social and cultural connections, for Forrest Hall and the College.