Standing up for freedom of speech

Roger Partridge
Insights Newsletter
6 December, 2019

It can take courage to champion what you believe in. Especially when your views are at odds with those of the crowd. And more especially today, when social media’s cauldron of hate can quickly vilify anyone speaking out against politically correct ‘wisdom.’

Yet, in the past week a group of academics, led by Dr Michael Johnston from the Faculty of Education at Victoria University of Wellington, has taken a stand for something they hold dear. Concerned about the growing tendency for New Zealand’s universities to shy away from debate on sensitive subjects, the academics have written an open letter to New Zealand’s eight universities challenging them to affirm their commitment to freedom of speech on campus.

Two recent incidents at Massey University triggered their letter. The first concerned the cancellation of the Speak up for Women ‘Feminist 2020’ event on alleged ‘health and safety’ grounds. The second involved the university removing posters supporting the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong.

Both incidents follow Massey’s widely publicised de-platforming of Don Brash in 2018.

‘Cancel culture’ has become commonplace on American campuses. The academics are alarmed it may be taking hold in New Zealand.

They claim the mission of universities to foster free expression and debate has two consequences of inestimable value. First, when theories and ideas are winnowed and refined on campus this has a moderating effect on public discourse beyond the universities. Second, there is a benefit to students. “[T]hrough exposure to ideas that challenge and sometimes disturb them, [students] become more intellectually robust,” the academics claim.

The academics challenge universities not to crumple in the face of protests and cite ‘safety’ as a reason for de-platforming controversial speakers. As they rightly observe, this is a “thug’s charter.”

In response to campus cancel culture in America, the University of Chicago has championed the “Chicago Statement.” This statement restricts expression that violates the law, or which is defamatory, but otherwise prevents university staff or students from “obstructing or interfering with the freedom of speakers to express views that others may disagree with or even loathe.” The statement has now been adopted or endorsed by more than 70 American universities.

Earlier this year the University of Western Australia became the first academy across the ditch to adopt a similar free speech code drawn up by former Australian High Court judge, Robert French.

Anyone interested in protecting freedom and democracy in New Zealand should get behind the academics’ campaign to have our universities do the same.

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