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Professor Paul Moon

Freedom of speech in New Zealand’s universities under attack

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A plea for free speech in our universities might seem about as unnecessary as a demand that all people be treated equally under the law. 

After all, the Education Act asserts clearly the right of academics to speak as critics and consciences of society – supposedly securing universities as bastions of independent thought and open expression.

Yet, recent events at home and overseas are endangering freedom of speech at our universities.

Threats against minority communities in New Zealand, and in other Western countries, and terrorist attacks in Europe are having a chilling effect. A recent study of 115 British universities found only seven had not experienced some sort of censorship, ban or intervention which curbed free speech. 

The right to free speech is so ingrained in New Zealand’s ethos that today a diverse group of 27 high-profile New Zealanders has released an open letter warning of “the forceful silencing of dissenting or unpopular views” on our university campuses. Its signatories include not only academics, and business and community leaders, but some of our most outspoken commentators, including Sir Bob Jones, Dr Don Brash, Sir Geoffrey Palmer and Dame Turiana Turia.

Of course, with rights come with responsibilities. Freedom of speech must have some constraints; that’s why it is a crime to incite hatred and violence. And damaging someone’s reputation – outside the privileged protection provided at universities and Parliament – can end in a defamation suit. Just as the courts and the media must always jealously guard freedom of speech from state controls, so must our universities.

The pretext of avoiding offence is regularly hauled out as the basis for curtailing free speech on campuses.  If a group is offended by an idea or argument, it is increasingly – and misguidedly – believed it is better to ban or “disinvite” the causers rather than ruffle sensitivities or risk the speaker being drowned out by vigorous protest. This patronising sanctimony continues to gain ground along with an absurd notion that universities should provide intellectual “safe-spaces”.

There is no inalienable right not to be offended. It is paradoxical that those who clamour for such “safe spaces” often seem untroubled by the intimidation being used to shut down unpopular speech.

It is precisely these intellectually dangerous or subversive spaces that academics and students must enter and explore. Political dissent, artistic deviance and intellectual rebellion are at the heart of a healthy and progressive society, and universities have traditionally played a leading role in challenging conventions and ushering in new ways of thinking and doing.

The forced closure of a student club at Auckland University recently – and threats to their members’ safety – is a slippery slope we should all be wary of. Kneejerk calls from Police and the Human Rights Commission to introduce hate-speech laws after recent abuse against ethnic communities will have the unintended consequence of suppressing free speech.

Education, open debate and understanding will change racist and intolerant views – not censorship.

A vibrant society permits heretic views to be expressed. A country where the state – or universities for that matter – determines what is a permissible thought and what isn’t is a dictatorships, not a modern democracy.

History shows that it is fear and intolerance that drives suppression of free speech, rather than free speech causing fear and intolerance. Those who attempt to suppress free speech, tend to do so out of fear and intolerance. Censorship is a crude tool used to replace healthy counter-argument. 

That we think and believe different things is something to be cherished, not smothered, and different ideas and opinions are something to be welcomed. That is how we learn and progress.

Universities teach people how, not what, to think. Now more than ever, they must protect the very core of their work – free expression. 

This article was first published HERE and is reproduced with the kind permission of the author.

You can read Professor Moon’s open letter warning that free speech is under threat in the country’s universities that was signed by 27 high-profile New Zealanders HERE – and show your support for free speech in New Zealand by signing the petition.