Opinion: Another VC on Free Speech

Aug 24, 2018

Here is a good analysis written by the Free Speech Coalition's own David Farrar on Stuart McCutcheon's comments on the principles of free speech in the university environment in New Zealand.  

 

 

By David Farrar

Auckland VC  writes:

New Zealand is rare in having academic freedom and university autonomy enshrined in legislation. Part of our role as leaders of the universities is to protect those values, which are fundamental to  in a democratic society. And, as the leaders of the largest research institutions in the country, we can encourage debate that is informed by facts rather than unsubstantiated opinion.

However, the right to free speech is not absolute. Speakers may not, for example, defame others, nor incite violence, nor engage in activities that breach Human Rights legislation. Similarly, the Education Act provides for academic freedom, but only “within the law”.

I agree that some of the limits on free speech are defamation, not inciting violence and not breaching the law. I also note Don Brash has done none of these things, or come close to it. His advocacy against race based seats is advocating one one side of a current political issue.

Even where a speaker is operating within the law, we are seeing increasing claims from some groups that a university has a duty to protect them from what they regard as “hate speech” (which it may not be in a legal sense). As institutions that seek to create opportunities for members of under-represented groups, we certainly work to provide environments in which they can flourish, succeed and be safe. However, the view by some that any speech they deem offensive or threatening should be prohibited from campus would essentially eliminate most debate from the university environment.

Good to see McCutcheon conclude that you can’t allow groups to censor speech they find upsetting as it would eliminate much debate on campus. I would go further and suggest that if staff at a university can’t handle people saying things they dislike, they are in the wrong job.

From the perspective of university leaders, it is almost impossible to reconcile the rights of those who demand “free speech” (particularly at the more extreme ends of any issue) with the rights of those who demand to be protected from what they see as prejudice and a cause of mental distress.

You don’t reconcile them. You follow the law set out in The Education Act.

Finally, and most relevant in the Massey case, vice-chancellors as chief executives of the universities have an obligation to the health, safety and wellbeing of staff, students, visitors and any other person on campus. The challenge here, of course, is in assessing the credibility of threats to particular events.

Thomas has been criticised for cancelling an event because she believed there was a significant risk of harm to participants. 

No she has been criticised for cancelling it because she didn’t like what Don Brash says, and labelled it close to hate speech. The security concerns were a transparent ruse, as evidenced by the fact she didn’t even talk to the Police before cancelling.

If Thomas had not spent most of her press release blaming Brash and labelling his advocacy against race based seats as close to hate speech, then one might believe her concern was purely security. But it is obvious it was the content of what Brash might say that concerned her, not a couple of posts on Facebook.