2 Oct 2019

Open letter denounces white supremacy at Auckland University

8:38 pm on 2 October 2019

Hundreds of university staff have signed an open letter declaring racism and white supremacy have "no place" at Auckland University.

Signage for the Epsom Campus of the University of Auckland in New Zealand.

Photo: 2015 Lakeview Image Library

A new wave of posters and stickers promoting a recently-launched white nationalist group have been spotted at the university this week.

And this isn't the first time - in April, RNZ reported students were becoming increasingly afraid of what they described as a growing movement on campus and white supremacist propaganda being plastered on campus walls.

The Chief Human Rights Commissioner said while the propaganda isn't unlawful - it does beg questions around whether New Zealand's current hate speech laws are fit for purpose.

The group responsible for the latest campaign exclusively recruits young white men and its stated aim is to protect European culture.

A spokesperson for the university has described the group's views as abhorrent but said they are protected by freedom of speech.

Hundreds of university staff members, including senior academics, have hit now back. In an open letter, staff say racism and white supremacy have "no place" on campus.

They have no trouble identifying the group's beliefs as white supremacy and its ambitions are clearly at odds with Te Tiriti o Waitangi, the letter states.

"Making this identification - along with an understanding of where such sentiments can lead - is part of the professional expertise of many scholars and students here at the University of Auckland. Finally, as human beings we clearly see that these sentiments are at odds with the norms of decent behaviour."

Deputy director of equity at Te Pūnaha Matatini Kate Hannah signed the letter and said now was a critical time for the university.

"I think that perhaps it's time for us as a community at the university to have a conversation with experts, people from law, from political science, from history, from all of those disciplines that inform the ways in which we have come to understand free speech and to have a conversation about what that really means and what the limitations of free speech really are."

The latest campaign has a louder message than others in the past, she said.

"One of the things about the most recent occurrences this week on campus is that they were very blatant, they weren't highly symbolic, which we have had in other white supremacist, or alt-right, or neo-Nazi presences on campus in the past.

"That's why I am really hoping that this will lead to a moment in which those experts from the disciplines I listed before can be involved in having a conversation about understanding what this now looks like in the 21st century."

Chief Human Rights Commissioner Paul Hunt said the group's posters were pathetic nonsense - but not unlawful.

But there are some anomalies within the law protecting them, he said.

"So, there's one threshold for print media, it's a different threshold for online media. There's a set of protected groups under the print media, but there's a different set of protected groups under the online media.

"So, there are some anomalies and I think they should be looked at."

People need to ask whether the country's current hate speech laws are fit for purpose, he said.

"When we ask the question, the debate must be inclusive. It must allow all communities to express their view and the discussion must be respectful and it must be well-informed."

University of Auckland Vice-Chancellor Stuart McCutcheon is overseas on business, but acting VC John Morrow said he had "no doubt" that Professor McCutcheon would applaud the letter signed by staff.

"Universities are established to be society's critic and conscience and this is what we would expect from our community. The open letter demonstrates our staff members' exercise of their right to academic freedom and makes a welcome contribution to ongoing debate on matters that are central to the university's values."