"Free speech but..."

You'll be aware that Victoria University's highly anticipated panel discussion on free speech took place on Tuesday afternoon this week. I was there along with Nathan from our team, and of course Jonathan who was on the panel. 

If you didn't get to watch the livestream, here are my thoughts on how it went. 

I’m always reluctant to use sporting analogies, especially American ones. But after witnessing what happened at the Victoria University's 'The role of universities in supporting freedom of speech' event, I find it impossible not to compare this much-anticipated event to the infamous game-fixing of the Baseball World Series of 1919.

I’m not suggesting the VUW symposium involved bribes or corruption of any kind. The carefully choreographed proceedings and the panel with a majority of pro-censorship speakers meant there was absolutely no way the proposed “contest of ideas” would ever have any chance of appearing free or spontaneous.

So, when it comes to making any clear commitment to upholding principles of free speech, what can we, as NZ citizens, expect of our publicly funded universities?

Well, it really depends on which academic you’re asking.

Vice Chancellor Nic Smith in his welcome address quoted arguably the greatest champion of free speech, Frederick Douglass – an escaped African American slave and leading 19th century abolitionist – who contended that free speech was essential for human flourishing and without it racism, among many other evils, could not be properly countered.

Evoking Douglass was a promising start. Yet Smith immediately followed this inspirational moment with the conclusion that NZ in 2024 is quite different to the war-torn USA of 1863.

Smith did not elaborate, leaving at least those in the audience with some knowledge of black civil rights history befuddled. Were we to assume that the wisdom of a black man born into literal slavery and self-liberated by his own enormous intelligence, courage and efforts counts for little on modern day university campuses?

Is Smith suggesting that the greatest minds of history couldn’t help us navigate modern questions about “micro-aggressions” and “safe spaces”?

Corin Dann of Radio NZ, in the role of M.C., had presumably been given instructions to keep the panellists from engaging in any form of freestyle debate.

It meant, alas, that his severe headmasterly demeanour and strict management of each invited speaker made the whole event seem more like a tightly controlled spelling bee than an intellectual discussion on free speech.

The average age of both panellists and audience members was around 50 years old. Curiously, the eight out of ten panellists who held more censorious views about speech seemed unclear on how they'd draw the limit for free speech. It was as if they’d never considered there would be a need for a detailed blueprint of the brave new world they were dreaming up.

It had been easy to paint broad strokes, but now it was about the detail, the nitty-gritty. They spoke of free thought and expression like it was a nice idea that had been tried and found a bit wanting.

Then each in their own way focused most of their attention and concerns on the safety of various minorities. 

The most compelling voice on this specific point was Anjum Rahman, a Muslim woman who, to the aggravation of many in the room, argued that free speech was in fact one of the greatest protections for the welfare of any minority.

She also stressed that students needed to be made uncomfortable “three times a week” at minimum by ideas they encounter at university. But there was considerable uncertainty about what she was expressing in the rest of her speech and this culminated with her challenge to Corin Dann to imagine what it would be like to have someone threaten to behead him.

It was, to be very honest, an awkward moment, being both quite abrupt and because Rahman was talking about things that were already illegal.

If their was a salient point somewhere in there, most people were still recoiling at the visualisation of Dann’s impressively mustachioed talking head being despatched from his body to know what she meant exactly.

The two Māori panelists had completely different views as to whether free speech values were indigenous or not. Law lecturer Morgan Godfery suggested Māori had a pretty “wide” definition of what free speech could be and admitted that marae and hui tended to exemplify this in the way they operate.

Dean of the AUT Law School Khylee Quince was adamant that free speech values were an alien concept to Te Ao Māori and merely a product of colonization.

Most speakers used the all-too-familiar line “free speech is vital but...” However, inevitably with such a diverse panel it was very telling that none of them could entirely agree where this right should end.

Many agreed with Rahman that discomfort was necessary, but people could not be left “unsafe.” When pressed, no one could give an adequate definition of “unsafe” and how the limits could be practically enforced.

"Feelings are an intangible which cannot be easily or quantitatively measured so this is an extremely problematic metric for restricting free speech."
-Jonathan Ayling on the panel

Australian John Byron spent much of his time apologizing for his “white privilege” and at one point even his own existence. Affably self-loathing is perhaps the best way I can describe it.

Jonathan Ayling and Dr Michael Johnston were the only two dissenting voices.

Arguing in favour of free speech, both Ayling and Johnston expressed the crucial idea that what had changed the equation on campuses in recent years was the ideological divergence of members in our society from a set of shared fundamental values.

For instance, many no longer have the same view of human nature, the pursuit of knowledge, or an agreed democratic ethos. So, it shouldn’t come as any great surprise that we now find ourselves at odds over where we put the boundaries of speech, thought and expression.

Ayling, as has been the pattern of the last few months in leading up to this event, found himself the target of the greatest ire. The formidable Professor Jane Kelsey (recently retired) wrapped in activist garb made it her special mission to try and discredit the work of the Free Speech Union, the Coalition Government, the Act Party in particular, and basically any traditionally-minded person in the past 20 years with even just a nostalgic attachment to free speech.

There were a few nods from the more revolutionary-minded in the crowd, but it was more of a rant than a serious analysis.

What the VUW Symposium showed was that the game is being redesigned while we’re playing it and there is no shortage of confusion.

This is the reality most of us know already. But perhaps what Tuesday showed especially well is that even when they rig the game in their favour, our would-be censors still don’t know how to agree with each other on what the new game ought to look like. They’re too busy scoring own goals and blowing the whistle at the tiniest infractions.

Sorry for mixing sports codes in my metaphors, but given the self-loathing-virtue signalling-identity crisis we’ve been witnessing on university campuses lately, we’re evidently living in some pretty mixed up times.

We need to have a proper debate in this country, unfettered and honest, about free speech.

Victoria University is only one of many tertiary institutions to prove that self-proclaimed “experts” have lost sight of the value of free speech and the unique way of life it has afforded us all.

Now, without bold and coherent advocacy from the Free Speech Union and like-minded others, it is a way of life we could very easily lose.

This event just confirmed why we are needed. Only with your help can we support universities, and the nation at large, to not only tolerate free speech, but to celebrate and defend it. 

Nick Hanne
Education Partnership Manager
Free Speech Union

PS. We wrote to Vice-Chancellor Nic Smith with feedback on the event - read it here. If you're an academic or a university staff member and want to ensure your voice is heard, join our academic membership here. 

Showing 2 reactions

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  • Robert Biggs
    commented 2024-05-31 19:52:41 +1200
    When free speech disappears it is not long before the people who wish to speak up also go. This suits artificial intelligence, the bigot and the dictator as they can then say what they want.
  • Nadia Braddon-Parsons
    published this page in Blog 2024-05-31 17:28:56 +1200

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