Bryce Edwards: Political freedoms under threat on NZ campuses

Bryce Edwards: Political freedoms under threat on NZ campuses

Just over a year ago, a group of academics and public intellectuals published an open letter warning of political freedoms being under threat in New Zealand universities. The letter was organised by AUT historian Paul Moon, and was co-signed by 26 others, including Don Brash. Moon, himself, argued that a “tsunami” of threats to free speech was occurring in overseas universities, and “The question is when, rather than if, that happens here. Once it happens it’s very difficult to undo, so we would like to head it off”.

I covered the controversy in a Political Roundup column, Freedom of speech vs PC culture. In this, I pointed to a trend in which “liberals are becoming the new reactionaries”, and universities around the world are becoming more conformist, with critical thinking being eroded, especially under the guise of banning ideas and politics that might be deemed offensive or “hate speech”.

At the time, Moon and his co-publishers might reasonably have been accused of “jumping the gun” – after all, at that stage there was no particularly strong evidence of academic freedom being squashed in the way that they argued. But in retrospect, Moon and the others were incredibly prescient, because their fears have indeed come to pass. There have already been breaches of political freedoms over the last year that might be considered alarming – such as the recent confiscation of the student magazine Critic by authorities at the University of Otago.

Now with the banning of Don Brash from speaking this week at Massey University in Palmerston North, alarm bells should at least be going off for those who care about academic freedom and freedom of speech.

A Positive backlash against Massey University

The backlash against Massey University’s decision has been overwhelming – everyone from the Prime Minister through to the Massey University Students Association have criticised or disagreed with banning Brash. But the most important critical piece published so far, comes from Massey University Deputy Pro Vice-Chancellor Chris Gallavin, who has publicly declared that his boss got the Brash decision “unequivocally wrong” – see: Democracy ‘is messy, emotional, rational and irrational’.

Gallavin points to the “increasingly polarised” political debate in New Zealand, and argues that universities should embrace rather than suppress differences and debate: “the answer is not to avoid difficult and, at times, confronting conversations. Rather, community leaders, and universities in particular, play a vital role in leading our communities in those discussions, as difficult as they may be, applying the principles of informed discussion, compromise, enlightenment of the points of view of others, and if all else fails, respectful disagreement.”

The episode has been useful, according to Karl du Fresne, for illuminating the problems of increasing illiberalism amongst the political left and on campuses. He says that Massey University Vice Chancellor Jan Thomas “may have done us all a favour. She has laid bare the authoritarian bigotry that thrives in institutions which once stood for intellectual freedom” – see: Liberal Left a howling contradiction. He says, that “No-one should be in any doubt that free speech, a fundamental hallmark of liberal democracy, is under concerted attack.”

He also discusses why Brash has been such a big focus for the illiberal left: “I believe the Left targets Brash not because he holds extreme views, but for precisely the opposite reason: a large number of New Zealanders agree with him. That makes him a potent threat.”

But others on the political left have spoken out strongly about the Massey ban on Brash. For example, the No Right Turn blogger has said the Brash ban “would be laughable, if it wasn’t so dangerous to our democracy” – see: A paranoid’s veto. He is especially concerned about the University’s justification of “health and safety” for the ban: “Because if any speech which attracts protest is banned, then we simply can’t publicly discuss controversial (or, given trolls, even uncontroversial) topics. Or basically anything at all.”

Socialist Don Franks has also reacted strongly to the increasingly popular notion of “hate speech” that is used to justify eroding political freedoms. He says: “It’s past time to get shot of this ‘hate speech’ mantra. It’s bullshit. I have used the expression myself in the past, to describe attitudes I disagreed with; I realise now I was wrong. Now that I think about it, I need to employ ‘hate speech’ myself, quite often, because I hate quite a few things and I want the right to say so. I hate workers being bossed around and under paid, I hate air pollution, I hate owners of uncontrolled dogs, I hate warm beer, I hate capitalism” – see: Massey university compromises free speech.

Newspapers have strongly opposed the Massey decision. The Manawatu Standard’s news director, Jimmy Ellingham has warned that “A university that stifles debate, no matter how uncomfortable the subject matter, is undermining its reason for being” – see: Massey University’s suppression of free speech can’t go uncontested. He believes that the Vice Chancellor banned “Brash because she doesn’t like what he says – an extraordinary position for a university leader.”

Also at the Manawatu Standard, Grant Miller argues that the Vice Chancellor’s banning “raises questions about her judgment and about the university’s values. Does the university value a range of perspectives? To what extent are students free to think for themselves? Is the university in favour of robust debate?” – see: Massey University must act to restore its credibility.

Miller also argues the incident has been revealing for the free speech debate: “Massey has taught some interesting lessons this week. It showed that some universities pretend to be interested in free speech, but are much more interested in creating a culture of conformity. It provided a valuable case study in how referring to ‘hate speech’ is not often about hate and is instead increasingly about control-freakery.”

The Dominion Post made some excellent points in an editorial about how free speech and academic freedom can play an important part in the struggle for justice and equality: “Advocates of racial, civil and gender rights have made progress, in part by agitating and offending traditional cultural norms, mores and ideas… That a university, no less, a venue we so often look to for that cultural, political and academic disruption, would ban a speaker such as Brash, a former Reserve Bank governor and Opposition leader, is of great concern. We hope that other institutions will either distance themselves from such actions or make it clear they disagree” – see: Massey wrong on Brash ban.

Massey University’s stance on political freedoms

The banning of Brash was not Jan Thomas’ first foray into the free speech debate. The Massey University Vice Chancellor had previously written a column for the Herald when the debate over Canadians Southern and Molyneux was raging. In this she appeared to argue that there should be no place for free speech in universities if that speech involves hate, and that hate speech is “a rape of human dignity” – see: Free speech is welcome at universities, hate speech is not.

It is in this column that Thomas first raises her objections to Don Brash’s group, Hobson’s Pledge, saying that their campaign against the creation of Māori wards in local government “came dangerously close to hate speech”. And her column focuses on making a case that “hate speech” should not qualify as “free speech”. She also defines the term: “hate speech refers to attacks based on race, ethnicity, religion, and increasingly, on sexual orientation or preference”.

This definition is a “nonsense” according to blogger David Farrar, who responded to the column by saying: Don’t study at Massey University if you like free speech. He categorises Thomas’ piece as “An Orwellian column which pretends to support free speech, but in fact opposes it.”

Farrar has also responded strongly to the banning of Brash, saying “This act by the Massey VC is something you expect in the US with its culture wars. It has no place in NZ. If it is allowed to stand, then it will be a defining moment for us” – see: Massey VC kills off free speech on campus.

He challenges the VC’s decision on Brash’s speech: “even if there were threats of violence, the proper response is to provide security, not allow what many now call the thug’s veto or heckler’s veto. To do otherwise is to incentivise people to make threats of violence against speakers they disagree with, so that the speakers are shut down. But the VC makes very clear she thinks Brash is a ‘hate speaker’ and this is beyond doubt why she made her decision.”

Reasons to be optimistic about campus freedoms

The very strong reaction to Massey’s Brash ban is cause for optimism about the ability of universities to counter illiberalism amongst campus administrators or even staff and students. I’ve written about this today in my column for Newsroom, in which I argue that “academics, students and universities now need to re-assert the culture of robust and diverse debate on campuses” – see: Time for universities to welcome radical and free speech.

Here’s my main point: “In fact, in the aftermath of the Massey-Brash debacle, New Zealand universities have the perfect chance to show that they are the bastions of critical thinking and openness to robust debate. They should now make an extra effort to illustrate to the public that campuses in this country are robust and democratic enough to invite Brash and other radical thinkers and speakers into public debates.  Of course, such debates should include other radicals and sometimes-unpopular and contentious people. The likes of Nicky Hager, Sandra Coney, Michael Laws, Hone Harawira, Donna Awatere-Huata, and John Minto could be given platforms and opportunities to discuss and debate contemporary political and social issues. And, of course, students should be welcome to challenge or even protest their politics. The only thing that should be banned is the suppression of political views.”

A post on The Standard made a similar argument today: We need more radicals coming here. The gist of this blog post is that the New Zealand Labour Party and union movement were created and strengthened by visiting radicals who, at the time, would have been considered beyond the pale. And again, in the 1970s, radical political activists came here, helping spark progressive change: “From that decade was a huge liberative explosion of ideals and protest and experimentation in environmentalism, anti-war and peace efforts, feminism, anti-imperialism, anti-racism, Maori liberation, and more. That foreign-influenced radicalism also formed the Values and then the Green Party.”

Now in 2018, the blog post says, New Zealanders are turning “once again into the passionless people”. It concludes that “we need radicals. Even foreign radicals. Even foreign radicals who charge for tickets. Even foreign radicals who charge for tickets and say stupid things.”

Of course, these free speech campus issues will continue to divide and ignite debate for quite a while. And tonight, Don Brash is taking part in the University of Auckland debate on the topic of: “Has PC culture gone too far to the point of limiting freedom of speech?” You can watch the Facebook livestream from 6:15pm – see: Think Big Debate – Freedom of Speech.

Finally, Massey University does have supporters for its Brash ban. The most interesting column is Carmen Parahi’s When a person with extreme views defends free speech someone gets hurt. Here’s her key point against Brash: “He used his free speech to try to obliterate Māori out of New Zealand society. If you don’t believe me, read the speech for yourself. The problem is Brash has not changed his view. He says what some, I hope not many, Kiwis want to say about Māori but haven’t got the public platform he has to make his words stick in the minds of the public. It makes him dangerous.”