Bryce Edwards: Free speech has been strengthened at Massey

Bryce Edwards: Free speech has been strengthened at Massey

The attempt by the head of Massey University to ban Don Brash from speaking on campus last month has entirely backfired. Instead of Brash being undermined by her actions, it now looks like Vice Chancellor Jan Thomas is in danger of losing her position. What’s more, her actions have ended up reinforcing academic freedoms on campus.

Certainly, we now know that Massey University academic staff have been fighting back against their boss, with the view that she has brought their institution into disrepute. Peter Lineham, a professor of history at Massey has been leading the charge, and he put forward a motion to the University’s Academic Council yesterday to censure the Vice Chancellor. He explained why today in an interview with Newstalk ZB’s Mike Hosking, saying “I think it is a big, big blunder… this has put the university in a very bad light” and in terms of the university staff, “I think most people are uneasy about the decision” – see the three-minute interview: ‘It was a big blunder’ – Massey Uni board speak out.

Lineham explained how the Academic Council met yesterday and “grilled” their boss. He gives an idea of how Massey staff feel, saying there was “intense discussion at Academic Board, because she seemed to have started off being very determined to find some way or other to stop Don Brash’s visit, and then retreated from it, and then up came the safety issue, which I think had it been looked at in the cold and hard light of day didn’t really amount to much.”

Perhaps Lineham’s most important point in the interview is about how campus free speech has actually been strengthened as a result of the Brash-ban debacle: “I think we have recovered free speech a bit because this controversy has strongly marked the New Zealand campuses by the fact that vice chancellors – and this is happening throughout the world – cannot play nanny to the students. That’s a ridiculous role. The students can choose who they want to listen to, and can have whatever views they want. And I think this particular incident has made every vice chancellor realise that they need to keep their hands out of deciding what students should listen to.”

The latest revelations

The issue has reared its head again because Thomas’ emails relating to the whole saga have been revealed by blogger David Farrar, who obtained them via an Official Information Act request. The nature of the communications suggest that Thomas was determined to stop Brash from speaking, and spent weeks trying to find a way to do this, before finally cancelling the event due to “security threats”. To read all of the communications, see the blog post: Massey lying over cancellation of Brash speech.

The Vice Chancellor believed that Brash has been involved in “racist behaviour” and this conflicted with Massey as “a Te Tiriti-led university”. Therefore, in dealing with the prospect of Brash speaking on campus she thought it “would be good if we can cut off at the pass some how”.

The response to the revelations has been strong. The No Right Turn blogger says the communications show “that the cancellation wasn’t really about security, but about Thomas simply not liking Brash’s views” and “as a government institution, Massey is bound by the Bill of Rights Act and its affirmation of freedom of speech. It simply can not behave like this” – see: An open and shut case.

He calls for staff to take action: “Massey academic staff may wish to consider whether someone with such views is really appropriate to head an institution supposedly dedicated to free academic debate.”

Don Brash has called on Thomas to resign: “Frankly I don’t think she has got any other alternative. She has been dishonest about the whole thing and clearly hoodwinked many involved, including me” – see the Herald’s Simon Bridges backs calls for Jan Thomas to resign and says the Government needs to take action.

Brash has also announced that he’s been invited back to speak next month – on 17 October – by the Politics Society students, and so far it seems that the University is going to let him appear, which is surely some sort of victory for free speech.

National Party leader Simon Bridges is also reported in this article saying “I think Jan Thomas has to go… She has been dishonest, and more than that she has tried to tort free speech and that is just not good enough anywhere in New Zealand and certainly not on university campuses”. Furthermore, he says “We don’t want to go down some American style culture war where we see this sort of issue and people shouting down different views to them.”

An editorial ran in Stuff newspapers today, responding to the latest revelations, sympathising with Massey University staff, who “will have every reason to feel decidedly unimpressed by news that they and the public have been misled” – see Philip Matthews’ Massey must come clean about Brash ban.

The editorial criticises the VC, pointing out that “It should be possible to both disagree with Brash’s problematic views of Māori culture and allow those views to be aired in a university setting.”

There is another interpretation, however, about what Thomas’ emails reveal. Otago University law professor, Andrew Geddis (@acgeddis), believes that there’s no reason to necessarily believe that the VC has lied in her public account of banning Brash: “My reading is that Thomas was keen to ban Brash on ‘he’s a bad man with dangerous ideas’ grounds, but was told that she couldn’t. Then the *threats* came in, and she adjudged these to be serious enough to be grounds themselves for banning him.”

Pressure on the Massey Vice Chancellor

University staff are now openly signalling their unhappiness with the Vice Chancellor (who is akin to a chief executive). Deputy pro-vice chancellor Chris Gallavin has been speaking publicly about staff feelings. Appearing on RNZ yesterday he said: “There is significant worry, and perhaps even distrust if not anger in the minds of many Massey University staff, that they may have been told an untruth or at very least not the whole story” – see: Don Brash cancellation: Censure motions against vice chancellor.

Gallavin explains the motions that academic staff are considering against Thomas, which will be voted on next month. The RNZ article reports: “Professor Gallavin said he had never heard of a board passing a censure motion against a vice-chancellor and it would send ‘a strong message’ to the Council about the staff’s ‘disappointment’.” He is quoted saying, “Whether she should resign really revolves around that question as to whether she still has the trust and confidence of the staff”.

Others are also issuing challenges to university bosses. RNZ reports that student leaders are outraged that Massey University appears to have considered cutting funding to the Massey University Student Association. Hence, the association has issued a statement of “no confidence” in Thomas. And the president of the New Zealand Union of Students’ Associations, Jonathan Gee, has expressed his worry: “Students associations, not just at Massey but across the country, are really concerned around the silencing effect that she’s suggested here and whether other vice-chancellors might follow suit” – see: Student leader fears ‘silencing effect’.

Finally, Mike Hosking has joined the calls for Jan Thomas to resign, and he’s also asked what has happened to New Zealand universities: “The campus, the university, the home of free speech, the exchange of ideas, the heated debate, the ability to learn through diversity, the welcoming of diversity, the open arms approach to expression. Well, that’s all been made a joke” – see: It’s simple – Massey’s Jan Thomas has got to go.