2 Dec 2019

Free speech crisis on New Zealand campuses?

From Nine To Noon, 9:35 am on 2 December 2019

An urgent call is going out to the vice chancellors and councils of all New Zealand universities from a group of academics concerned about the state of free speech on campus.

Dr Michael Johnston from Victoria University has written a letter asking university leadership to protect free debate and to repudiate censorship by affirming the Chicago principles. which are guidelines adopted by the University of Chicago to enable university members to discuss any problem that presents itself within the bounds of the law.

Dr Johnston says institutions must not obstruct the freedom of others to express their views, even if they are ideas they reject or loathe.

Massey University cancels Don Brash speech

Massey University cancels Don Brash speech Photo: RNZ / YouTube

The letter says the request is in response to incidents at Massey University including the banning of Don Brash from speaking on campus in 2018. As well as the more recent banning of the radical feminist Meghan Murphy and the removal by university authorities of posters protesting against the actions of the Chinese government in Hong Kong.

“Universities obviously have an important cultural role to refine and test ideas. Now, to allow that to happen it is necessary to have open debate. You can't test an idea if you don't allow the expression of ideas that people find difficult or even offensive.

“And furthermore, when it comes to a university education, it's actually an important element of that for students to get used to ideas that they find difficult or even offensive. Because as they go forward in life, if they want to make strong contributions to public debate, public policy and so on, they will meet people with a vast array of views, many of which differ substantially to theirs,” Dr Johnston says.

The Chicago Principle is not just about open slather, Dr Johnston says.

“It's perfectly reasonable for the university to make some rules about where and when discourse takes place and the manner with which it's conducted,

“So, it's perfectly reasonable to say well we don't attack one another personally on campus, we attack the ideas, but we don't attack people things like that. So civil discourse, but open slather on what ideas can actually be discussed.”

Cancelling speakers who may cause offence, or potentially harm groups of students, is a slippery slope, Dr Johnston says.

“You don't help people by protecting them from ideas that they find difficult. The psychological literature is pretty clear, that when people are suffering an anxiety about something, and that might be an idea or a discourse that they find difficult or makes them feel unsafe, and I'd acknowledge that people may be made to feel unsafe by a certain discourse, the way to help them with that is to gradually expose them to situations like that on a voluntary basis and universities have an important role in doing that.”

A signatory to the letter, Derek McCormack from the Auckland University of Technology and Chair of Universities New Zealand says there is a difference between academic freedom and freedom of speech.

“I think one of the things that we need to do in thinking about these things is to distinguish between academic freedom, which is the responsibility and right of the university, and freedom of speech. And I think they can be subtly different things.

“Academic freedom should be the right to, as it says in the Act, the right of academic staff and students within the law to question and test received wisdom put forward new ideas and to state controversial, or unpopular opinions.”

The Chicago Principle states that controversial views should be expressed in a “manner consistent with the highest ethical standards” Dr McCormack says.

Nevertheless, universities are diverse places and should be able to make sometimes difficult decisions about who may come onto campus, Dr McCormack says.

“The legislative rights and responsibility that we have under the Act is for the freedom of academic staff and students. And I think it is reasonable for universities to be able to control who is invited onto their premises to conduct discussions or debates or to make presentations.

“We don't have to be a place where everybody has the right to put up their posters.”

Unsavoury opinions exist, and they need to have a venue in which to be debated and debunked, Dr Johnston says.

“Universities appear to me to be a good venue for that. So, let's take that situation, the difficult situation, where somebody with genuinely offensive ideas that are not supported by an evidence base is invited to a campus say by it by a student club or something like that.

“Well, if we ban them, what do we do? We essentially marginalise that point of view - well maybe we want to marginalise it. But maybe a better way to deal with it is to expose it to the light and allow people to attack it with evidence.

“So, it seems to me, therefore, the responsibility of academics to front up to that argument or that opinion, and take it apart, rather than just saying you may not say it.”

Related stories

  • The decision to cancel Don Brash's speaking event is 'unequivocally wrong'