Why won’t NZ defend academics’ right to freedom of speech?

Dr James Kierstead
The Australian
12 October, 2022

Almost 30 years after leaving Quebec, and just short of ten years after moving to New Zealand, it’s not often that I get the chance to link the two. Recently, though, the government of my former home province passed an academic freedom bill that shows exactly what Wellington should be doing but isn’t – at least not yet.
Law 32, which came into force in June, defines academic freedom as ‘the right of every person to engage’ in university activities “freely and without doctrinal, ideological or moral constraint, such as institutional censorship.”

It requires universities to have policies, representative committees, and internal ombudsmen dedicated to academic freedom. It also requires them to report annually to the provincial government and allows for the government to intervene in universities that fail to comply with the new obligations.

Predictably, academics and commentators have found plenty of things to dislike in the bill. For commentator Alex Usher, the law’s apparent granting of “a right to engage without moral restraint” (his emphasis) sounded “terrifying.”

But the bill later makes clear that academic freedom will have to be exercised in accordance with the usual “standards of ethics.” What it’s concerned with is pressure on academics from within the university, “such as institutional censorship” (a phrase that’s missing from Usher’s quotation of the law).

For Eve Haque from York University and Peter Ives from Winnipeg University, the law blurs “the distinction between academic freedom and free expression or free speech.” Usher complains that “the idea that academic freedom is a right of every person is ridiculous” since academic freedom “applies to academics, not the rest of the university.”

But why shouldn’t postgraduate and even undergraduate students enjoy the same rights as professors to put forward and discuss ideas? (In New Zealand law, as it happens, academic freedom has long been explicitly defined as applying to both academic staff and students.)

More than anything else, though, critics of the new law have focused on the idea that it constitutes a threat to academic autonomy. In one open letter, six Quebec professors asked whether Law 32 was “the real threat to academic freedom,” and speculated that the main purpose of the bill was simply “to grant the government more power to interfere in how universities are run.”

The idea that government intervention to protect free speech represents a threat to the autonomy of universities seems to be a common one among academics. But it’s built on a series of misconceptions.

First of all, it makes perfect sense for governments to put concrete mechanisms in place to ensure compliance with new laws. There’s no reason that shouldn’t apply to academic freedom as much as anything else. In fact, academic freedom laws often include compliance mechanisms.

The UK’s Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill, currently in the House of Lords, will appoint a new Free Speech Champion to the government’s higher education regulatory body, among other measures. Australia already has several mechanisms in place to protect academic freedom, including a requirement in the Higher Education Support Act that universities have academic freedom policies.

More importantly, legislating in favour of basic liberal values like free speech doesn’t represent the ideological imposition that many academics take it to be. Governments forcing universities to abide by substantive ideologies (Christianity, say, or socialism) would indeed be a grave violation of the principles of academic freedom.

But this isn’t what academic freedom legislation does. Instead, it simply requires universities to provide an open forum where ideas can be freely expressed and debated – something they should have been doing all along.

This brings us to a final point. There is nothing illegitimate about liberal democratic societies taking steps to ensure that the basic principles of liberal democracy are respected. Free speech is one of the core principles – perhaps the core principle – of both liberalism and democracy.

Elected governments are perfectly within their rights to protect it, especially in publicly-funded universities, and especially when there is mounting evidence that the principle is under threat.

Public universities should be autonomous, especially when it comes to teaching and research, but there must also be some accountability to taxpayers and to the public at large.

As a former Anglophone Montrealer, I can see plenty of reasons to criticise the populist Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ) party that passed Law 32, not least for making the province’s already-illiberal language laws even more draconian.

But Law 32 is part of a growing response by democratic governments to a problem that’s now well-documented: the emergence of a widespread and virulent movement within universities that’s hostile to academic freedom and open inquiry.

Australia already had some sound measures in place to protect academic freedom, measures it further strengthened with its 2020 Higher Education Support Amendment (Freedom of Speech) Bill.

What about New Zealand, where I live and work (as an academic, as it happens)?

New Zealand, like other Anglophone countries, seems to have a problem with free speech at its universities. Speakers have been deplatformed, from former National leader Don Brash, deplatformed by Massey University in 2018 over his leadership of right-wing lobby group Hobson’s Pledge) to feminist Daphna Whitmore, whose talk at Auckland University of Technology on “woke intoleranace” was cancelled earlier this year.

Last year seven Auckland academics who wrote a letter to the Listener magazine criticising the inclusion of Maori traditional lore in the science curriculum were denounced by their own Vice-Chancellor, the Tertiary Education Union, and the Royal Society of New Zealand, who even initiated an investigation into the letter-writers, only to call it off following international outrage.

And a poll earlier this year by the NZ Free Speech Union found, perhaps unsurprisingly, that over a third of academics felt more constrained than free to discuss a range of issues, especially gender and sexuality (47 per cent felt constrained) and the Treaty of Waitangi (a full half of respondents felt constrained).

What are we doing about all this? In 2019, I co-signed an open letter appealing to the country’s Vice-Chancellors to voluntarily sign up to the Chicago Principles, a popular free speech charter for universities. None did.

In May 2022, an MP from the classical-liberal ACT party proposed a bill designed to protect academic freedom in our universities. (A few years previously, an attempt to get New Zealand’s Vice-Chancellors to voluntarily sign up to the Chicago Principles had come to nothing.) The bill was almost immediately voted down by parliament which is, of course, dominated by Jacinda Ardern’s Labour party.

New Zealand still has a long way to go, it would seem, to catch up with Québec.

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