29 May 2024

State should not interfere with free speech on campus - academics

9:18 am on 29 May 2024
Vic Uni sign

A debate on a proposed law change requiring universities to implement free speech policies was held in a lecture theatre at Victoria University on Tuesday night. File image. Photo: RNZ / Samuel Rillstone

The state should not interfere in how universities approach free speech on campus, a group of commentators and academics say.

A majority of the speakers at Victoria University's debate on free speech held at the campus on Tuesday night were against a proposed law change requiring universities to implement free speech policies.

Included in the National-ACT coalition agreement is a pledge the government will change the Education and Training Act to mandate the policies at tax-payer funded tertiary education providers.

Tuesday's event, titled "The role of universities in supporting free speech", caused controversy when it was postponed over staff and student concerns about right-wing voices and a lack of diversity on the panel.

The university added panellists, changed the format, and moved the debate from the central university hub to a lecture theatre. RNZ's Corin Dann moderated the discussion.

About 100 people filled the lecture theatre - and many more streamed the debate online - while security guards were stationed at all doors.

One of the panellists, founder of the Inclusive Aotearoa Collective Anjum Rahman, said universities should encourage difficult and controversial debate.

"If the university is not making you feel uncomfortable three times a week, at least, then it is not doing its job. I should be able to sit here and say to all of you that research and academia in this country is racist."

But she said there must be limits about who was invited onto campus, giving the example of those who shared extremist ISIS content and advocated for journalists to be beheaded.

"Do you think it's ok for people to come on this campus and have a debate about whether you, Corin, should have your head cut off your body?

"I support that guy being in jail, I don't think they should have that right."

Free Speech Union chief executive Jonathan Ayling said the government's policy was necessary because academics and students did not feel they could openly express ideas.

His presence at the panel was criticised by both staff and student groups - though the debate passed without protests or heckling from the audience.

"Looking at what has led up to this debate, the fact that we have students that are saying it is unsafe to hear certain ideas, even once certain perspectives are expressed, even if the auspicious Corin Dann is there to counter them, the quote 'harm has been done', I think this points to an epistemological underpinning that is very weak."

But Jane Kelsey, emeritus professor at the University of Auckland said the issue was about changing the culture at universities rather than the law.

"We actually need to recover the governance structures of the universities that enable us to have these debates within our university so we can perform our role internally and perform our role of public intellectuals externally."

Khylee Quince, dean of law at Auckland University of Technology, said the unique makeup of that university's student population - 30 percent Pasifika, 15 percent Māori - and with the largest proportion of students coming from decile 1 schools - needed to be factored in when considering free speech on campus.

"Our vice-chancellor and our council has a duty of all of those people and not just the very small minority of people that pose a threat to their safety and well-being."

Politics students Matt Cuckow and Becca Bowden were two of the few Victoria University students in the audience.

"There's a certain accepted set of beliefs that everyone is meant to hold, and if you don't hold that then people kind of look at you," Cuckow said.

Bowden agreed.

"I feel like no one's ever censored in classes - no one's ever told 'you can't say that'. But I do feel like you wouldn't exactly go up and say certain things, because you would be criticised for doing that."

Victoria University vice-chancellor Professor Nic Smith told RNZ after the debate he did not think the government should legislate for free speech on campus.

"I think there's an inherent irony - some would argue a hypocrisy in legislating for free speech and I don't think [for] the university sector as a whole and certainly at my university Victoria University of Wellington - that is either helpful or constructive."

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