Disagreement, even vehement disagreement, is not abuse nor ‘harassment’.
There is little pleasure to be found in ‘I told you so’ when inevitably those who have perpetuated cancel culture and attempted to prohibit others from speaking freely are in turn subject to similar behaviours.
Nonetheless, just as any Kiwi should be able to do their job free from threats to their lives and safety, Professor Shaun Hendy and Dr Siouxie Wiles are right to expect that they should not experience such behaviour as a result of their public work. The pair have filed complaints against their employer, University of Auckland, arguing that it hasn't protected them against "a small but venomous sector of the public" that has become increasingly "unhinged".
There are some distinctions to be made as to whether the University of Auckland is responsible for adverse reactions to the academics’ public communications, but the following points from the Employment Relations Authority ruling merit highlighting:
- The University of Auckland admitted they advised Hendy and Wiles to reduce their public commentary as an option to reduce Health and Safety risks. This is wrong. The academics should not be expected to stifle themselves in order to be safe. It is disappointing to learn that University of Auckland executives would apparently want to allow a “thug’s veto”.
- The University of Auckland attempts to argue that Hendy and Wiles’ public commentary is not part of their employment, despite Wiles' contract including a 40% portion for science communications. This is a core matter for the Employment Court, but it seems prima facie to be clear that the science communication of Dr Wiles is part of her work.
- Hendy and Wiles take their complaints beyond physical intimidation and threats, and refer to "targeting by harassment and abuse of Māori academic researchers who comment on racism and race issues, sexism directed at academics who comment on the gender pay gap...". This appears to be an opening for quasi-hate speech laws, where employers may have to 'protect' employees from social media comments. If the Employment Court decides that employers must protect employees from online abuse around contentious issues, then it would be justification for their apparent want to simply shut down any controversial discussions.
Academic experts play a vital role in leading and participating in public discussions and have the right to not have their contributions met with violence (of the actual kind) and threats. Threats of violence are ultimately a matter for police. The university should take reasonable steps to enable academics to do their job, for example they may intervene to reduce the use of university facilities and resources by those found to be contravening university policies or the law.
This includes academics with whom Hendy and Wiles might not agree and includes threats to employment.
While we want to make our condemnation of threats clear, it is important to recognise that part of expert academics’ role in the public sphere is to facilitate the exchange of ideas, be the “critic and conscience of society" and "promote community learning".
Both Hendy and Wiles have publicly taken part in attempts to silence colleagues they disagree with. They have signed open letters, levelled unfounded accusations of racism, and aggressively sought to discredit fellow academics who either disagreed with their covid commentary or asserted that Mātauranga Māori is not necessarily science.
Public communications engaged in by academics should not be treated as edicts handed down, not to be questioned. Indeed, science itself is the process of testing and questioning and adding to a wider, proven body of knowledge. In expressing an expert opinion, academics should be willing to engage with critique and challenges in good faith. Disagreement, even vehement disagreement, is not abuse nor ‘harassment’.
A certain degree of robustness should also be expected from public figures, particularly those engaged in political work of any kind. We need to draw a line between what is illegal threatening behaviour and what is unpleasant (sometimes downright nasty) commentary made by an impassioned critic.
To silence and punish rude or subjectively offensive speech in this context would have a chilling effect on all who seek to criticise or question particularly controversial topics. For example, we would not want to see New Zealanders prohibited from expressing the strength of their feelings in protests against Government action as many did during the TPPA marches even though some of the rhetoric was potentially offensive to then Prime Minister John Key. Being rude or offensive should never be a crime.
As New Zealand’s union for freedom of speech, we advocate for an academic environment in which academics like Hendy and Wiles do not find themselves in a situation of ‘live by the sword, die by the sword’, so to speak.
Reciprocal respect for the rights of others to express and defend their views ensures that when situations of threats and abuse arise, the entire community feels able to speak against it.
We encourage the University of Auckland to reflect on how a robust policy of free speech that is not vulnerable to the “thug’s veto” would bring greater confidence and solidarity to its academics. It would also allow the university more time and resources to deal with the kind of threats and doxxing Hendy and Wiles raise in their case.