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.
As the end of the year approaches, we thought it the right time to look back at our work to date – work that you have made possible with your support.
Since launching the Free Speech Union in May, we’ve been laser-focused on defending and promoting free speech in New Zealand. The enemies of free speech hunt in packs – this union was formed so that defenders of free speech can band together too.
🗣️ Speak Up For Women vs Palmerston North City Council ⚖️
The feminist group, Speak Up For Women opposed the Births, Deaths, Marriages, and Relationships Registration Bill (the bill that would allow people to change their sex on their birth certificate), saying it risked unintended consequences for women's sex-based rights. They were on a speaking tour to discuss the Bill and made bookings at council venues around the country for these events, including the Palmerston North City Library. The Library later told SUFW it was cancelling their event and would only host a debate where “all views” would be represented.
We quickly went into bat for SUFW by organising a crowd funder and making an application for judicial review.
In his decision, Justice Nation granted the sought injunctive relief: forcing the Palmerston North City Council to host the event. the Judge said the Council's decision involved a "significant failure to recognise SUFW's right to freedom of speech and freedom of peaceful assembly." He also found that putting conditions on the event which insisted that SUFW could only present their views on the Bill if they were countered by speakers with an opposing view could not be considered a reasonable limitation on those rights.
The Auckland Council got the message too. With Palmerston North's case as a backdrop, Auckland Council settled with SUFW and the Auckland event went ahead in the Council Chamber. Similarly, Dunedin City and Wellington City Councils backtracked and allowed the SUFW's bookings. The latter accepted SUFW's booking at the Michael Fowler Centre after sending lawyers to the Palmerston North's High Court hearing to see if they could get away with not allowing the Michael Fowler event. 🤦
Leave to appeal to Supreme Court granted in Moncreiff-Spittle
While the Court of Appeal judgement in the Moncrieff-Spittle case represented a substantial improvement on the High Court judgment, we think we can do better. The Court was given a perfect opportunity to deal head-on with the heckler's veto concept but they weirdly passed that ball into space: saying all the right things about the value of free speech, but not taking the last step to put the onus on authorities to prevent situations of the heckler's veto.
We are appealing on grounds that the Court of Appeal did not give adequate weight to freedom of speech when concluding that Auckland Council (Auckland Regional Facilities)'s decision to cancel the 2018 event was reasonable and justified.
The Supreme Court decided that the case is important enough to accept our application for leave to appeal. It is set down to be heard at the Supreme Court in Wellington on 22 February 2022.
Hate Speech Campaign 💬 🚫
A primary focus of the Free Speech Union in 2021 has been preventing the introduction of hate speech laws. We're proud that more than 40,000 Kiwis signed our petition calling on the Government to can their hate speech proposals and more than three-quarters of submissions received by the Ministry of Justice on the hate speech proposals came from our supporters using the FreeSpeechSubmission.com online submission tool.
That's important. It means the Government can't claim public support for their dangerous 'hate speech' laws.
And it is pleasing to see so many of the submissions were from members of minority communities. Contrary to claims by the likes of the Human Rights Commissioner, Kiwis are waking up to how free speech protects diversity and minority interests.
It is deeply concerning that the Prime Minister and Minister of Justice have failed to answer clearly when asked what speech would and would not be criminalised under the proposals. If the Prime Minister and Minister of Justice can't easily explain what 'hate speech' is being criminalised, how is the average citizen supposed to know?
Vague intentions make bad law and overseas experience has shown that the introduction of such laws has resulted in law enforcement consistently missing the mark, and has created a structure allowing for legal harassment of the state against citizens, even if they are ultimately found not guilty.
There has however been some good news out of the United Kingdom this month with a landmark judgement from the Court of Appeal that the recording of non-crime hate incidents is an unlawful interference with freedom of expression. As the Court says, the knowledge that such matters are being recorded and stored in a police database is likely to have had a serious “chilling effect” on public debate.
But the fight isn't over. It appears that rather than backing down, the Government will be releasing their hate speech legislation in the new year. Rest assured we are gearing up to fight it at every stage of the legislative process so watch this space! We’ll let you know how you can get involved in stopping these laws in the New Year.
After the Tertiary Education Union refused to help, we stepped in to support a Waikato University lecturer’s fight for academic freedom. Dr Raymond Richards faced potential disciplinary action for his lectures about methods of critical thinking in history after he referred by way of example to “religious cranks” who said the earth was flat and that dinosaurs and Adam and Eve had met.
Following a student raising a concern, the Head of the Social Sciences School summoned Dr Richards to a meeting. They did not reach an agreement but HR later wrote to him saying they “do not expect to have a repeat of these matters”. The Head of School also cancelled an in-class test of the students’ understanding of the methods of critical thinking.
Our lawyers lept to the defence of free speech reminding the University of its responsibility to uphold academic freedom. They subsequently u-turned on their treatment of Dr Richards – a significant victory.
Richard Dawkins also tweeted a link to our press release:
As you probably know by now, much of our efforts of late have focused on defending the academic freedom of seven distinguished professors who authored the now infamous The Listener letter, which took issue with a government working group’s proposal to incorporate Mātauranga Maori concepts as an equivalence of “western science” in the school science curriculum.
This time, the Tertiary Education Union not only refused to defend the professors’ right to state controversial opinions, but it put out a statement describing the letter as “damaging”, and said, “members found it offensive, ill-advised and racist”.
We have since been contacted by a number of academics appalled and outraged to have found out that their Union made a statement condemning The Listener letter on behalf of members without any consultation.
After we released news of the Royal Society’s investigation to the media and launched a crowdfund to cover the professors legal fees, we leveraged our international connections in the hopes that drawing more attention to the issue internationally would make the Royal Society feel the heat.
With Richard Dawkins, Steven Pinker and Jerry Coyne having weighed in, the Royal Society now knows that the eyes of the world’s science community will be watching when they announce the outcome of their investigation into Cooper and Nola.
We will update you on the progress of the investigation when we can. But regardless of its outcome, the fact that they instigated this ridiculous witch hunt means they’ve already tarnished their reputation on the world stage. Organisations should be aware they can pay a heavy price when they join in on the pile-on to appease the mob.
Meanwhile, Auckland University's Vice-Chancellor, Dawn Freshwater, seems to have had second thoughts now that the University's international reputation is on the line. After rushing to condemn the seven scientists on behalf of the University in July, saying their words "caused hurt and dismay" she has now announced that the University will host a symposium on the issue:
In his latest piece, Graham Adams suggests a public apology to the seven professors would show it was more than a PR stunt.
Local Government Codes of Conduct 🗳️
Earlier this year we wrote to the South Wairarapa District Council urging them to remove an outdated anti-democratic clause from their Code of Conduct that stifled free speech.
We are pleased to now see it reported in the media that the Council has adopted a new Code of Conduct that omits the troublesome provision which forbade criticism of council decisions and policy.
Similarly, we were pleased to have supported Otago Regional Councillor Michael Laws after a Code of Conduct complaint from the Chief Executive landed him under investigation after comments he made to the media. The complaint was ultimately not upheld, and we received feedback that the letter we sent to the Chief Executive was instrumental in the outcome of the investigation, and the complaint later being dropped. This just shows the way these complaints are lobbed about to intimidate councillors!
We foresee Codes of Conduct as being a major battleground for the Union in 2022. There is a worrying trend of Codes of Conduct within organisations being weaponised to undermine free speech. This is true across numerous sectors, not just local government, where vague provisions can be twisted to suit just about any purpose.
Member Advocacy ✊
Of course, it hasn’t been all court cases and crowdfunds. We’ve helped a number of members in employment and other situations this year. As a Union, we need to put the interests of our members first, which means we don’t always inform the membership of every case we take up.
One example we can share is that the Union defended a member who was intimidated at their place of work by a senior Council employee. Their crime? Writing a submission to the Council on Maori wards that took an opposing view to the one held by the employee.
We laid a Code of Conduct complaint against the employee, pointing out that citizens have every right to participate in local democracy without being harassed and intimidated by Council staff for expressing their views. In exchange for not naming the Council or employee, the Union negotiated an apology and retraction from the employee.
The member wrote us a kind note of thanks saying;
"I contacted the Free Speech Union looking for help after being intimated in my place of work as a result of my political views. Jordan and the team jumped into action and did more than I could have hoped to support my right to have an opinion. At every stage, I always felt in control of what the union was doing on my behalf. I now feel comfortable in my place of work knowing that even if a similar incident was to occur, the Free Speech Union would have my back and ensure there was a consequence to intimidating me because of my political opinion. I am so grateful that this amazing union exists"
As you can see, it's been a tremendous year for the Free Speech Union but the fight is only getting started. Membership means you'll have a team in your corner if someone comes after you because of your speech. Whether it's with embattled professors, local councillors or activist groups, we have a track record of standing up for our member's speech — and winning. If you're not already a member, click here so we can hit the ground running in the New Year.
Alternatively, you can make a confidential donation (without joining) using the link below. Your support will mean we can continue the fight into the New Year.
BFD intelligence report: Free speech issue, or surveillance state? 👮
Earlier this month we were alerted to the revelations Police intelligence staff have been monitoring Government critic and blogger Cameron Slater and his blog site "The BFD". Reasonable minds can differ on whether this is a civil liberty/surveillance state issue, or a purely free speech matter. We concluded that it is the former, also guided by the fact that as far as we can tell no laws or human rights have been broken (meaning there's no "cause of action" involved). Other than publicise the Police's misjudgement there is not a lot we can do.
In a blog post published earlier this week, Mr Slater has taken strong objection to our lack of action. We've done our best to present both side of the debate on our website here.
On behalf of the whole team, wishing you and your family a Merry Christmas and all the best for 2022. Thank you for your support.
Many of our supporters would have heard that the New Zealand Police have been keeping a watchful eye on Cameron Slater. Revelations from Police’s response to an Official Information Act request have shown that the Police’s “Scanning and Targeting Team” produced a file on Mr Slater and his blog site the BFD, flagging them as “anti-government” and “racist”. The Team produced an allegedly error-ridden intelligence brief on Mr Slater, and supposedly floated the suggestion that the Police visit Mr Slater for questioning.
Mr Slater recently published an article on the BFD chastising the Free Speech Union for its supposed failure to come to his support or express outrage that the Police have decided that he is a public figure worth watching. In a rather partisan fashion, the BFD has decided to discontinue its support of the Free Speech Union in its publications. The Union is disappointed by this knee-jerk reaction, but we understand that some of our supporters are sympathetic to Mr Slater and deserve an explanation.
Simply put, the Council of the Free Speech Union concluded that the story is not one around free speech issues, rather civil liberties. Mr Slater has not had his freedom of expression infringed in any practical way. The Police’s internal report, even if riddled with errors, does not impede Mr Slater from writing a column, sending a tweet or standing on a soap box. Indeed, the internal correspondence uncovered in the OIA response shows that the report was (rightly) slammed by more sensible heads within the Police.
We can disagree on the interpretation of ‘anti-government’ sentiment, and debate whether denigrating Labour Party policies should be a high risk concern to New Zealand’s Police. Most of us would accept that the Police have a legitimate role of monitoring places online and off-line where extremists may congregate. Most of us think the Police showed very poor judgment in thinking Mr Slater's blog is one of those places. But these are not free speech issues. Had the Police sent officers to Mr Slater’s home for no reason other than to threaten him for his publications, we would have considered it a matter of concern and would almost certainly have jumped to the BFD's defence. But we will not take an anti-Police stance for the sake of those with whom we share a common enemy (the Woke).
Mr Slater would agree that New Zealand should be a country of laws, with a strong and capable police force which ensures the proper observation of those laws. Such a country requires an objective police force with no allegiance other than to the rule of law. To demand immunity from the Police’s proper function falls prey to the same absurdity as those crying for the Police’s defunding. We have seen the result of such policy put into practice in the United States. It is not a sentiment New Zealand should import.
The privilege of privacy Mr Slate claims against the Police is not one he would grant to preachers of radical or fundamentalist sects of Islam, woke anarcho-communists, union organisers who “detest scabs”, of even on those TradeMe selling secondhand jewellery. He, like many others, would welcome the Police’s watchful eye to ensure the protection of person and property. But policing is paradoxical in a free society, and one cannot expect an objective police force to persecute one’s political enemies while applying leniency to one’s friends.
The views among the Council differed. But a deciding factor was that there is really nothing to be done here. There is no cause of action (in a legal sense), and the Police appear to have realised immediately the error of their ways. If it's simply about publicity and justified criticism of the Police (which appears to be the main remedy for Mr Slater) the BFD has a far bigger megaphone than us! We understand the blog is one of the most well-read in New Zealand.
When the Free Speech Coalition changed the Free Speech Union, it became better equipped to challenge what we saw as one of the most pressing threats to free speech in New Zealand: woke employment policy. What did not change was our commitment to a bi-partisan approach when supporting free speech. We continued to believe that in order to preserve Kiwis’ rights, we could not make free speech a right-left issue. Many of our most ardent supporters are of the Left who have seen the insanity of woke censorship.
There have been calls for the Free Speech Union to take up a more aggressive role in the ‘culture war’. Many of these demands conflate freedom of expression with more partisan issues and expect our broad (and growing) coalition to take a side. These calls often abandon normal boundaries, explained away with “the ends justify the means”, by applying double standards for the Right and Left. This is not the Union’s function.
We have come to the aid of teachers, professors, local government workers and have spearheaded the most significant free speech legal case in modern New Zealand history. This is all thanks to the broad-church of supporters.
And, contrary to the claims made by Mr Slater in his blog post, the idea we do not defend conservatives and only willing to defend the 'woke' is ridiculous. The raison d'etre that brought us together was to defend the rights of New Zealanders to hear from two controversial Canadain speakers regularly smeared in the media as "far-right".
But our continued success will depend on a collective defense of free speech. This means rejecting calls to abandon persuasion for coercive action. It means supporting the Police who are tasked with surveillance and keeping the peace. But above all, it means not alienating our base by paying attention to the content of political speech and choosing a side in issues we are not unified on.
We are not crusaders against a surveillance state (although many of us have grave concerns about this as well as free speech), advocates for privacy law, nor are we crusaders for right wing causes. This Union's function is to promote and protect freedom of expression. And with the support of all New Zealand, we will prevail.
These cases are not clear cut - and to highlight that reasonable minds can differ on these matters, we are republishing (with permission) a recent blog piece by fellow free speech advocate Karl du Fresne.
New Zealand: where being "anti-government" results in police surveillance
Things are worse than we thought.
Blogger Cameron Slater recently learned from an OIA request that the blog he’s associated with, The BFD, was under police surveillance. An unnamed police intelligence analyst was concerned Slater would “continue to publish uncorroborated information to denigrate labour [sic] party policies and individuals linked to them”.
Yes, you read that correctly. There are people in the police hierarchy who apparently think that anyone who criticises the government should be watched. This was also the mentality of East Germany’s Stasi, South Africa’s BOSS (the Bureau of State Security) and Haitian dictator Papa Doc Duvalier’s murderous Tonton Macoute.
(Vladimir Ilyich Lenin didn’t care for dissenters either, as he made clear in a 1920 speech: “Why should a government which is doing what it believes to be right allow itself to be criticised? It would not allow opposition by lethal weapons. Ideas are much more fatal things than guns. Why should any man be allowed to buy a printing press and disseminate pernicious opinion calculated to embarrass the government?” Lenin subsequently set up the OGPU, which eventually morphed into the KGB, to ensure he wasn’t bothered by such irritations. Someone like Slater would have gone straight to the Gulag.)
The documents released to Slater also included a request from an unnamed officer, couched in military-style jargon, describing him as racist and “anti-government” and asking for a “rundown” on him. The documents note that Slater’s reporting on Siouxsie Wiles, whom he labelled a hypocrite for appearing to flout lockdown restrictions that she had urged the public to comply with, was “consistent with past behaviours” such as defamation, breaching name suppression and “publishing erroneous reports on political opponents” – all of which are matters for civil, not criminal law, and therefore not the business of the police.
Ominously, a police intelligence briefing disclosed concern that Slater “will continue to public voice opinions on topical matters which may add to conspiracy theorist engagement across social media”. And an unnamed senior sergeant wondered whether the cops should pay Slater a visit because he posted “possibility [sic] controversial racist comments” about the September terrorist incident at LynnMall.
It’s hard to take this alarmist nonsense seriously, but we must. The documents reveal there are people in the police who think it’s their function to protect us against the free exchange of ideas and opinion – a right guaranteed to New Zealanders under the Bill of Rights Act. To put it more bluntly, these commissars-in-waiting apparently regard democracy as dangerous.
So being anti-government is now seen as a potential threat to public safety? This is the type of state paranoia that ultimately leads to monitoring of phone calls and knocks on the door at midnight. Slater was right to describe it as sinister.
As recently as two years ago I wouldn’t have imagined this sort of thing happening in one of the world’s most open democracies, but it’s surprising how quickly freedoms can be eroded. It starts with the marginalisation of unapproved views (the mainstream media are complicit in this) and advances rapidly to the point where dissent is denounced, suppressed and even made illegal. All it takes is a passive and apathetic populace – oh, and politicians too timid and too unsure of their own values to make a stand for individual freedoms.
Couldn’t happen in a liberal democracy like New Zealand? Don’t be so sure. During the 1951 waterfront dispute a National government invoked extreme powers under the Public Safety Conservation Act. These gave the police power to censor all publications, broadcasts and even private letters; seize printing presses and typewriters; arrest people who provided food, money or other support to striking workers and their families; ban public meetings; arrest people without warrant; and enter and search properties without a court order.
All of these powers were exercised by the police on the pretext that it was for the public good – and what’s most disturbing is that a compliant public and press went along. Who can say that under an equally determined government of the left, supported by a similarly sympathetic media, police won’t again be empowered to interfere with basic democratic freedoms? The appetite appears to be there, at least among some officers with dangerously inflated (and deluded) ideas about their function.
What next, I wonder. Will we hear people like Slater described as “enemies of the state” or “enemies of the people” – phrases used by brutal totalitarian regimes of both the extreme right (Nazi Germany) and extreme left (the Soviet Union) to justify the incarceration of troublesome individuals on the pretext that it’s for the good of society?
In this case, thank God, the unnamed police busybodies were over-ruled by wiser and more grounded senior officers. But the realisation that this type of censorious zealotry exists within the police should strike a cold chill in the heart of anyone who values open democracy – and all the more so when it remains possible that under so-called “hate speech” laws, the police will be given power to determine what we can and cannot say.
Disclosure: I haven’t met Cameron Slater, but I have written guest posts for The BFD and it has republished some posts from my blog by agreement. I have publicly disagreed with some of Slater’s tactics in the past. But freedom of speech is not a right that depends on the acceptability of the opinions expressed. Orwell (as so often) put it best: “If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.”
As international criticism mounts, Auckland University’s Vice-Chancellor pledges a symposium next year to debate the role of Māori knowledge in science education. Graham Adams suggests a public apology to the seven professors would show it was more than a PR stunt.
Reading the statement last week by Dawn Freshwater announcing a symposium to be held next year to debate the relationship between mātauranga Māori and science, it was impossible not to feel at least a little sceptical about her new-found enthusiasm for free speech.
After all, in late July the Vice-Chancellor of Auckland University effectively hung seven professors from her own university out to dry soon after their letter “In Defence of Science” was published in the Listener.
The professors’ 300-word letter was written in response to plans to include mātauranga Māori in the school science curriculum and to give it equal standing with “Western/ Pakeha epistemologies” — which means subjects such as physics, biology and chemistry.
The professors acknowledged the value of indigenous knowledge as “critical for the preservation and perpetuation of culture and local practices” and that it “plays key roles in management and policy”. But, while it “may indeed help advance scientific knowledge in some ways”, they concluded, “it is not science”.
Freshwater’s immediate reaction was to disown the letter writers. Her brief statement began:
“A letter in this week’s issue of The Listener magazine from seven of our academic staff on the subject of whether mātauranga Māori can be called science has caused considerable hurt and dismay among our staff, students and alumni.
“While the academics are free to express their views, I want to make it clear that they do not represent the views of the University of Auckland.”
Some were surprised the university actually has official “views” but apparently — in Freshwater’s eyes at least — it does.
In the wake of the firestorm sparked by the professors’ letter, Freshwater had another go at articulating her position in a longer statement on August 10. It appeared in part to be an attempt to remedy the evident shortcomings of her email on July 26. This time, the possibility of hurting other people’s feelings or dismaying them was ruled out as a reason for her academic staff to bite their tongues:
“The freedom to express ideas is constrained neither by their perceived capacity to elicit discomfort, nor by presuppositions concerning their veracity.”
Nevertheless, the idea that the university may deem some views acceptable and others unacceptable was repeated, although its chilling effect on freedom of expression was downplayed:
“Our seven academics were entirely free to express their views, however the University was also free to disagree with those views. That does not mean the University is censoring or trying to silence our academics, it is merely making clear that such views are not representative of the myriad views within the institution; and that the University may at times disagree with the views expressed by its academics. That is healthy in a university.”
It was hardly a convincing statement of academics’ rights to air their opinions. In what way, for instance, does your employer reserving the right to point out publicly that it does not approve of your views not function as an act of censorship or an attempt to silence?
And how could any particular group’s views ever be “representative of the myriad views within the institution”?
For that matter, in what universe is it “healthy” for a university to “disagree with the views expressed by its academics”? In fact, some would see it as a symptom of serious underlying illness.
In last week’s statement promising a symposium, Freshwater appeared to have given up on wrestling with the complex problem of what academic freedom and freedom of expression might mean in practice. She simply declared repeatedly that the university is in favour of it.
The question of the university approving some views and not others had disappeared and the whole debate was thrown over to the panel for discussion next year.
It is not impossible that in the past five months Freshwater has had a Road to Damascus experience about the value of free speech and academic freedom. But it is also evident that things have recently become a lot more uncomfortable for Auckland University and for the Royal Society Te Apārangi, our premier academy for the sciences and humanities, over their apparent hostility to views they find unacceptable.
In November, news broke that Robert Nola, Garth Cooper and Michael Corballis — the three Fellows among the seven professors who had signed the Listener letter — were to be put under disciplinary investigation by the society for their role in writing it. (Corballis has since died.)
New Zealand’s mainstream media has almost entirely avoided covering the debate but the society’s disciplinary action — and its earlier statement rejecting the professors’ views as “misguided” with the potential to cause “harm” — has sparked international outrage and condemnation from heavyweight public intellectuals.
Celebrated scientists — including Richard Dawkins, Steven Pinker and Jerry Coyne — have trained their sights variously on the Royal Society NZ; the open letter denouncing the professors’ views written by Auckland University academics Drs Shaun Hendy and Siouxsie Wiles; and Dawn Freshwater herself.
Influential journalists have joined the fray too. Toby Young, writing for The Spectator, described Freshwater’s July 26 statement as a “hand-wringing, cry-bullying email to all staff at the university” — a characterisation repeated in the Daily Mail.
Columnist Rod Liddle weighed in on the issue in the Sunday Times in an article headed “We’re Screeching into a New Dark Age” (and included Freshwater’s comment about “considerable hurt and dismay”), and Times Higher Education — the international bible for academics — has covered the debate in detail.
Given the fame of Dawkins, Pinker and Coyne — and the extensive reach of the media outlets mentioned — it’s easy to imagine the question of Auckland University’s international standing beginning to prey on a VC’s mind.
Perhaps that is why Freshwater felt compelled in her statement last week to remind us that her university is “a world-class, research-led university” — just in case anyone mistook it for a parochial institution struggling to understand the difference between science, myth and creationism.
Certainly, being blasted by Jerry Coyne — professor emeritus in the Department of Ecology and Evolution at the highly ranked University of Chicago — would have helped focus her mind about the damage to Auckland University’s international reputation.
A fortnight ago, the best-selling science author wrote on his blog: “It’s not clear whether the Vice-Chancellor has any authority to declare what the ‘views of the University of Auckland’ are, nor whether there are any official views.
“It’s clear she is demonising the professors at the same time she says well, they have the right of free speech — but note that the University can officially criticise them and the Royal Society can punish them!
“As for the Vice-Chancellor emphasising the ‘considerable hurt and dismay’ at the university, I consider that a ludicrous form appeal to emotion rather than reason.”
Coyne’s comments have been noticed at Auckland University. He reported that Todd Somerville, its Associate Director Communications, had sent him a “letter of complaint” about his original post, in which Somerville defended Freshwater ”at great length”.
Announcing a symposium at some as-yet-unspecified time in the first quarter of 2022 will undoubtedly seem to the VC to be a very effective circuit-breaker that will provide a breather for her and her beleaguered university.
Freshwater will no doubt also be hoping that by then the fates of Professors Cooper and Nola at the hands of the Royal Society NZ will be known — preferably, perhaps, concluding with a discharge on the grounds that a letter is not research and therefore isn’t covered by the society’s Code of Conduct — and that much of the heat in the debate will have dissipated over summer.
Such optimism is evident in her promise of a symposium “in which the different viewpoints on this issue can be discussed and debated calmly, constructively and respectfully”.
“I envisage a high-quality intellectual discourse with representation from all viewpoints: mātauranga Māori, science, the humanities, Pacific knowledge systems and others.”
It certainly sounds noble, but who exactly in New Zealand will want to put their head above the parapets to argue that matauranga Maori is not scientific, and should not be part of a science curriculum, as the seven professors did in July?
Perhaps some of the professors who signed the Listener letter will be willing to risk further public vilification and adverse consequences for their careers and reputations by arguing their case at a symposium. But why would they?
As well as the disciplinary action taken by the Royal Society against Corballis, Nola and Cooper, others among the seven professors may have suffered professionally as a result of signing the Listener letter — including evolutionary ecologist Kendall Clements.
As John Ross, Asia-Pacific editor for Times Higher Education, wrote: “Co-authoring the letter in the Listener may have taken a professional toll [on Clements]. Within 12 days of the letter’s publication, Clements was removed from two collaboratively taught ecology and evolution courses that he had helped deliver for years.
“And while an email criticising the authors was distributed to staff and graduate students in the School of Biological Sciences, [Garth] Cooper’s attempt to respond through the same channel was blocked.
“The university says the school email distribution list was ‘not the appropriate medium’ for this type of debate, so its moderators were told not to allow further emails on the topic. And Clements’ teaching duties were changed to balance his workload after another academic’s departure, ‘and to ensure that the best teaching teams were in place to deliver all courses. The Listener letter was a catalyst for actioning this, but not for the decision.’”
If such luminaries haven’t been protected by their status within the academic community, why would anyone who is looking to further their own careers in academia decide to stand up publicly to defend science? Why would any researcher with even vague hopes of securing grants from the public purse in the future put their head in that particular noose?
In contrast, more than 2000 (mostly New Zealand) academics felt free to sign the open letter co-authored by Drs Hendy and Wiles heavily criticising the professors’ letter — presumably without any need for concern about the consequences for their careers.
Some commentators have suggested that in the current climate not signing the open letter could have been more dangerous professionally for many academics than signing, given the pressure to be seen to take a stand against anything that can be alleged to be “racist”, no matter how far-fetched and divorced from reality that accusation might be.
Racism has been only one of the slurs directed at the professors. Others have included the extraordinary description of them on Twitter by a professor at Victoria University as “shuffling zombies”.
In short, in such a febrile atmosphere, Dawn Freshwater’s grand vision of a truth and reconciliation symposium featuring a “respectful, open-minded, fact-based exchange of views on the relationship between mātauranga Māori and science” seems extremely optimistic.
If the Vice-Chancellor really wants to set the symposium on a firm footing, and convince sceptics it is more than a PR ploy, she could start by apologising publicly to the Auckland University professors for not supporting — much more clearly and forthrightly — their right to voice their views in the first place.
Robert Nola’s academic specialty is the philosophy of science but the Royal Society is investigating him over what it claims are “misguided” views regarding Māori knowledge. Graham Adams reports.
Professor Robert Nola’s bread and butter is analysing what makes science science. And it has been his focus for more than 50 years. Yet, he is facing a disciplinary hearing by the Royal Society for expressing his views on science and mātauranga Māori (traditional Māori knowledge).
Nola was one of seven eminent professors from Auckland University who, in a letter to the Listener in July, criticised plans to include mātauranga Māori in the school science curriculum and to give it equal standing with “Western/ Pakeha epistemologies” — which means subjects such as physics, biology and chemistry.
The professors acknowledged the value of indigenous knowledge as “critical for the preservation and perpetuation of culture and local practices” and that it “plays key roles in management and policy”. But, they wrote, while it “may indeed help advance scientific knowledge in some ways, it is not science”.
For reasons best known to itself, the Royal Society felt moved to respond with a public statement: “The recent suggestion by a group of University of Auckland academics that mātauranga Māori is not a valid truth is utterly rejected by Royal Society Te Apārangi. The society strongly upholds the value of mātauranga Māori and rejects the narrow and outmoded definition of science outlined in The Listener Letter to the Editor.
“It deeply regrets the harm such a misguided view can cause.”
Unfortunately for a statement put out in the name of the nation’s premier academy for the sciences and humanities, it was sloppily worded and seemed to show a poor grasp of what the professors had actually written.
As has been noted elsewhere, the professors never said mātauranga Māori wasn’t a “valid truth” — which of course could describe anything from witchcraft (at least in the eyes of its practitioners) to the great Abrahamic faiths of Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
Furthermore, the professors didn’t “outline” a definition of science in their letter, as the society claimed, although it perhaps could be said to have implied one.
Possibly the Royal Society’s most egregious assertion, however, was that the professors’ views were “misguided”.
That description can cover a multitude of sins, from being “unreasonable or unsuitable because of being based on bad judgment or on wrong information or beliefs” (Cambridge English Dictionary) to “led or prompted by wrong or inappropriate motives or ideals” (Merriam-Webster).
Synonyms include unwarranted, unfounded, ill-advised, ill-considered, foolish and confused.
To accuse a group of no fewer than seven outstanding professors of being “misguided” because they hold a particular view of what demarcates science from non-science seems… well… misguided. And perhaps no more so than in Professor Nola’s case.
It would certainly be news to the editors of the prestigious journals and book collections which have published his work in the philosophy of science over decades that his views are misguided. Just as it would be news to the eminent scientists around the world who have contacted the Royal Society to condemn its investigation and to back the professors’ opinion on mātauranga Māori and their right to offer it.
Professor Nola, a Fellow of the Royal Society of New Zealand, has an MSc in mathematics, and an MA and a PhD in philosophy.
His résumé on the University of Auckland website details his professional interests as: “Philosophy of science; metaphysics, including naturalism; epistemology; selected areas in social and historical studies of science; atheism; science and religion.”
It is difficult to imagine anyone in our universities who might have a better-informed view on the boundaries of science or why mātauranga Māori should not be included in the school science curriculum. Obviously, that is not a reason to immediately assume his views are correct but it is a reason to assume they are well considered and that he has the standing to make such a judgment in a professional capacity.
That is, of course, unless it is argued that mātauranga Māori is a form of priestly knowledge that only an initiate — presumably Māori — could understand and comment on. But if that is the case, it confirms immediately that traditional Māori knowledge is not scientific.
As the professors stated in their letter: “Science is universal” — which Nola points out can mean that it is “applicable by anyone anywhere”.
The same point was made by evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins in the letter he sent to the Royal Society NZ last week (and tweeted to his 2.9 million followers) that decried the disciplinary investigation against Nola and his eminent colleague, Māori medical researcher Professor Garth Cooper:
“Science is science is science, and it doesn’t matter who does it, or where, or what ‘tradition’ they may have been brought up in. True science is evidence-based not tradition-based; it incorporates safeguards such as peer review, repeated experimental testing of hypotheses, double-blind trials, instruments to supplement and validate fallible senses etc.”
In his letter to the Royal Society, Jerry Coyne, professor emeritus in the Department of Ecology and Evolution at the University of Chicago, made the point that only scientific method can determine what parts of mātauranga Māori can be classified as scientific knowledge:
“Māori science is a collation of mythology, religion, and legends which may contain some scientific truth, but to determine what bits exactly are true, those claims must be adjudicated by modern science: our only ‘true’ way of knowing.”
The problem for the Royal Society in rejecting what they see as the professors’ “narrow and outmoded definition of science” is that a wider and more fashionable view of what constitutes science leads inevitably to a philosophy of “anything goes”, or a sort of epistemological anarchy.
Once Māori myths and legends are introduced into the school science curriculum there is no justifiable reason not to include Creationism (the belief that the universe and the various forms of life were created by God out of nothing) as well.
Parts of mātauranga Māori are, of course, creation myths, including the roles played by Ranginui, the Sky Father, and Papatūānuku, the Earth Mother, in the formation of the world.
As Dawkins wrote: “No indigenous myths from anywhere in the world, no matter how poetic or hauntingly beautiful, belong in science classes.”
As it happens, Professor Nola is no stranger to an elastic view of science — and what areas of knowledge and belief might fall under such an expanded remit.
He was a lecturer in Auckland University’s philosophy department when Paul Feyerabend arrived from the University of California, Berkeley, to teach during the winter terms of 1972 and 1974.
In the second half of the 20th Century, Feyerabend was one of the world’s best-known philosophers of science — and certainly the most mischievous.
He was a charismatic showman with a prodigious intellect and astonishing range of interests, and one who reliably packed out the biggest lecture halls in the university. He argued (as the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy puts it) that “in order to maximise the chances of falsifying existing theories, scientists should construct and defend as many alternative theories as possible”.
Feyerabend’s first book, Against Method: Outline of an Anarchistic Theory of Knowledge — published in 1975 (and expanding on the essay version that appeared in 1970) — consolidated his reputation as a thorn in the side of the profession. He argued that there is no such thing as the scientific method.
In an era when university lecturers were still allowed to discombobulate if not alarm their students with radical ideas, he challenged his Auckland University students to convince him that witchcraft was not scientific — and prescribed the 15th Century text Malleus Maleficarum (the Hammer of Witches) as a set text.
So Feyerabend ended up likening science to voodoo, witchcraft and astrology and defending them as systems of knowledge. He also expressed support for Creationism being included in the public school curriculum.
You might even say, to echo the Royal Society’s formulation, he saw each of them as “valid truths”.
Interest in Feyerabend’s views, however, dwindled in the succeeding decades, not least because what makes science science is manifestly different to traditional belief systems such as religion. Presented with evidence that confounds their theories, scientists are obliged, sooner or later, to adapt them to fit the facts or to abandon them entirely — unlike religion.
Professor Nola has written extensively on Feyerabend’s philosophy. While freely admitting that the demarcation between science and non-science is contestable, he has rejected a Feyerabendian epistemological free-for-all.
He wrote in the NZ Herald in 2016 to warn about “post-truth" displacing “objective facts”:
"Insofar as studies in humanities have not resisted the views of post-truthers, too bad for humanities. But what of science? It would be quite alien for science to reject the search for truth and evidence, the core of its critical methods.
"In science we have models of what the rational approach to believing ought to be. If followed, they are an important way to keep the post-truth era from engulfing us.”
However, a significant problem for anyone — including the seven professors — who wants to assess the scientific nature of mātauranga Māori is deciding exactly what status it has.
Nola points out that there are two distinct camps of thought regarding mātauranga Māori — the “accommodationist” and the “exclusionist” positions.
The former accommodates the possibility of scientific testing to determine the scientific truth or validity of its claims. As Vision Mātauranga (2007) tells us: “Scientific knowledge has superseded traditional Māori knowledge in many ways, however, mātauranga Māori contains suggestions and ideas that may yet make a contribution to research, science and technology.”
The latter exclusionist view asserts that it is impossible to judge mātauranga Māori by the standards of science because they are fundamentally incompatible ways of knowing. (Feyerabend would have called them “incommensurable”.)
A quote by Professor Sir Mason Durie in the document Rauika Māngai: A Guide to Vision Mātauranga, published in 2020, made this position explicit: “You can’t understand science through the tools of mātauranga Māori, and you can’t understand mātauranga Māori through the tools of science. They’re different bodies of knowledge, and if you try to see one through the eyes of the other you mess up.”
In the same document, the exclusive nature of mātauranga Māori was further emphasised. Aroha Te Pareake Mead expressed a view about the exclusive control of mātauranga Māori which appears to preclude any non-Maori from learning about it: “Māori are the only ones who should be controlling all aspects of its retention, its transmission, its protection.”
Nola says that “lots of the claims from Vision Mātauranga Māori (2007) can be accommodated into science in a quite familiar way and with that I have no problem” — but the exclusionist position is more challenging.
It is ironic that the professors who wrote to the Listener have been roundly criticised for saying “Indigenous knowledge… is not science” when influential Māori thinkers like Mason Durie — who is one of New Zealand's most respected academics — have been making a much more radical claim along these lines for years.
In a 300-word letter to the Listener it was simply impossible for the professors to make the distinction between the accommodationist and the exclusionist approaches, but the problem remains.
As Nola puts it: “Which version of MM is the real MM? There might not be one!”
News of the Royal Society's troubling decision to investigate three of its distinguished Fellows for defending science in a letter to the New Zealand Listener magazine has now made international headlines.
Toby Young – the General Secretary of our sister organisation (the UK's Free Speech Union) who is an Associate Editor of the Spectator Magazine – couldn't believe his ears when we told him about the NZ Royal Society's investigation into its members who signed the Listener letter. You can read his full piece here.
'In a rational world, this letter would have been regarded as uncontroversial. Surely the argument about whether to teach schoolchildren scientific or religious explanations for the origins of the universe and the ascent of man was settled by the Scopes trial in 1925? Apart from the obvious difficulty of prioritising one religious viewpoint in an ethnically diverse society like New Zealand (what about Christianity, Islam and Hinduism?), there is the problem that Maori schoolchildren, already among the least privileged in the country, will be at an even greater disadvantage if their teachers patronise them by saying there’s no need to learn the rudiments of scientific knowledge.'
Oxford professor Richard Dawkins, one of the world's most well-known public intellectuals, also tweeted an article by Emeritus Professor Jerry Coyne of the University of Chicago on this issue.
Professor Dawkins (who is a Fellow of the British Royal Society) wrote 'SHAME on the NZ Royal Society' and called on his Twitter followers to write to the President of the Royal Society, Roger Ridley.
In a letter to the President of the Royal Society, Professor Coyne wrote 'I hope you will reconsider the movement to expel your two members, which, if done, would make the Royal Society of New Zealand a laughingstock.'
Tweeting Young's Spectator column, Jordan Peterson asked the question on everyone's mind, "Why punish a scientist for defending science?"
The bullying and 'pile-on' which is being orchasrated by the Royal Society and cultural elites like Siouxsie Wiles is baffling the scientific establishment around the world.
If you are an academic, we encourage you to join with these eminent international academics and scientists like Professors Dawkins, Coyne, and Peterson, and call on the Royal Society to drop this witch-hunt- you can email the President at [email protected]
The Free Speech Union will again be contacting every academic in the country to ensure that they are aware of what an embarrassment this investigation is (and the witch-hunt it represents).
Times Higher Education is another global publication that has reported on the NZ Royal Society's investigation (behind a paywall - republished with permission at the end of this email). It added its voice to condemnation:
'The RSNZ said that it was unable to comment until the disciplinary process had run its course. THE also unsuccessfully sought comment from the society’s president, the chair of its academy executive committee and several high-profile critics of the Listener letter.'
To defend free speech with people power, we need you onboard
Jonathan, as we've built momentum this year, our opponents have looked for ways to discredit us. They like to say that we are just a small group of disgruntled individuals out of step with progress (the irony being progress has only ever come because of free speech).
When we first broke the story about the Royal Society's investigation, we were referred to as 'the so-called Free Speech Union' or 'the organisation calling itself the Free Speech Union', like this tweet from Dr Siouxsie Wiles:
But someone needs to be there to call out bullying and craziness like the Royal Society's investigation. If we band together, our opponents' smears just won't work. Going into 2022 we need as many individuals as possible standing up for free speech.
Membership means you'll have a team in your corner if someone comes after you because of your speech. Whether it's with embattled professors, local councillors, activist groups, or DHBs, we have a track record of standing up for our member's speech- and winning. Click here to join.
Thank you for your support and making this effort possible.
Article from Times Higher Education:
New Zealand academics investigated over Māori knowledge letter
Royal Society asked to expel decorated members who criticised plans to incorporate mātauranga Māori into curricula
December 6, 2021
A debate about the nature of science has become a litmus test for academic freedom in New Zealand, as some leading scholars face possible expulsion from the country’s learned academy.
The Royal Society of New Zealand (RSNZ) is investigating current and former University of Auckland professors whose controversial letter to the editor of The New Zealand Listener, published in July, criticised plans to embed mātauranga Māori (Māori knowledge) in the school science curriculum.
The RSNZ received five complaints demanding disciplinary action against the three society fellows who had contributed to the letter: medical scientist Garth Cooper and philosopher Robert Nola, along with psychologist Michael Corballis, who initiated the letter. Professor Corballis, who won the Rutherford Medal – RSNZ’s highest honour – in 2016, died suddenly last month.
New Zealand’s Education Act guarantees academics and students the freedom to “question and test received wisdom, put forward new ideas and state controversial or unpopular opinions” within the law. The Listener letter authors insisted that they were exercising this right in criticising the incorporation of mātauranga Māori in school and university science programmes, which they likened to giving creationism the same scientific status as evolutionary biology.
But the complainants alleged that the authors had committed at least nine breaches of the RSNZ Code of Professional Standards and Ethics – including failing to “behave with…integrity and professionalism”, “claim competence commensurate with their expertise” or “take reasonable…precautions to protect vulnerable people” – and violated the society’s “good character obligation”.
The RSNZ then launched a formal investigation. Its complaints procedures state that the society’s council “may initiate an inquiry if it has reason to suspect that a member may have breached…obligations”.
Massey University theoretical chemist Peter Schwerdtfeger, who won the Rutherford Medal in 2014, said the society’s approach was baffling. “I think they had a choice, but it was just bluntly rejected. The Royal Society now is so influenced by mātauranga Māori ideology that they started an official procedure, and once you start it, you can’t stop it,” he said.
Professor Nola said the investigation was currently determining whether the complaints could be pursued under the RSNZ rules. He said the Listener letter was not a piece of research and therefore not covered by the society’s code.
“The Education Act and the code give us the right to express our views, in a clause about being a critic and conscience of society, even though the views might be unpopular. We had no idea at the time how popular or unpopular they were. They’ve proven to be more popular than we thought,” he said.
Critics have questioned how the RSNZ can undertake an impartial inquiry after its president and the chair of its academy executive committee denounced the Listener letter authors in a statement posted on the society’s website.
Times Higher Education understands that two of the three panellists originally enlisted to investigate the complaints were removed after it emerged that they had signed an open response condemning the Listener letter.
The RSNZ said that it was unable to comment until the disciplinary process had run its course. THE also unsuccessfully sought comment from the society’s president, the chair of its academy executive committee and several high-profile critics of the Listener letter.
Free speech under attack? Talk to your Union.
Freedom of speech is a fundamental right in a liberal democracy – as important, even, as the right to vote, since people’s ability to cast an informed vote depends on them first being able to participate in free and open debate about political issues and ideas.
Accordingly, the Bill of Rights Act states that every New Zealander has the right to freedom of expression, “including the freedom to seek, receive and impart information and opinions of any kind in any form”. Even before the Bill of Rights Act made it explicit, free speech was a right that New Zealanders took for granted. They exercised it (and still do) every day in letters to the editor and on radio talkback shows.
Yet a perception has grown in recent years that New Zealanders’ right to speak freely and to hear all shades of political opinion, short of those that incite violence and hatred, is under sustained attack. Concern at the fragility of free speech rights led to the formation this year of the Free Speech Union, which has drawn support from across the political and ideological spectrum. The Free Speech Union’s supporters, for example, include veteran leftists Matt McCarten and Chris Trotter.
One celebrated case involved the Canadian “alt-right” (so-called) speakers Lauren Southern and Stefan Molyneux, who were barred from speaking at a council-owned Auckland venue in 2018. The excuse used for denying them a platform was that the event might be disrupted by protesters.
Activists quickly got the message that they could force the cancellation of speeches by people they didn’t like simply by threatening protest action – a tactic sometimes referred as the heckler’s veto.
This controversy is still being played out in the courts, where the crowd-funded Free Speech Union has gone all the way to the Supreme Court in a test case aimed at preventing public authorities from using the fear of disruption as an excuse to “de-platform” speakers.
In the meantime, other developments have reinforced the perception that freedom of expression in New Zealand is imperilled. The feminist group Speak Up For Women (SUFW), which advances the unremarkable view that only people born female can call themselves women, has been barred from holding meetings in public premises and had a prominent advertising billboard taken down in central Wellington.
SUFW’s struggle to get its message across in the face of determined opposition from trans-gender activists illustrates that the defence of free speech cuts across the usual ideological and political lines. People who identify with the radical left have found themselves on the same side as conservatives and libertarians.
In the latest outbreak of the speech wars, the action has shifted to a new and worrying arena. Seven respected university academics found themselves effectively blacklisted in July after they wrote a letter to The Listener challenging the notion that matauranga Maori – which can be defined as the traditional body of Maori knowledge – should be accorded the same status as science, as proposed by an NCEA working group preparing a new school curriculum.
In an unprecedented pile-on, more than 2000 fellow academics, urged on by professors Shaun Hendy and Siouxsie Wiles, signed a letter denouncing the Listener Seven and implying they condoned “scientific racism”. The response went well beyond legitimate disagreement. The sheer weight and vehemence of the denunciation sent an unmistakeable message to the academic community: express dissent at your peril.
More alarmingly still, two of the Listener Seven are now being investigated by the Royal Society – an organisation dedicated, ironically, to the advancement of science – and may be expelled.
What started as an academic debate has thus taken on the character of a heresy trial. Even more ironically, one of the professors under investigation, Garth Cooper, is a Maori who has earned international respect for his achievements in Maori health.
Once again, the Free Speech Union has stepped up by creating an academic freedom fund to help defend the two accused. If the complaint against them is upheld, union spokesman Dr David Cumin says, academics will inevitably feel less safe expressing honestly held views on contentious issues.
The bottom line here is that science and academia need people who challenge accepted wisdom, otherwise we would be stuck forever in the status quo. But in New Zealand in 2021, the price for deviating from approved orthodoxy is punishment and ostracism.
Karl du Fresne is a freelance journalist and former newspaper editor. He is the author of The Right to Know: News Media Freedom in New Zealand, and is a member of the Free Speech Union.
We all know we're entering the 'silly-season', but as you can see from this Free Speech Union update, it's not because we're getting close to Christmas.
Royal Society investigates Fellows for defending science
Last week, we uncovered the investigation the Royal Society is conducting into two Fellows for their part in writing The Listener letter, which posited that mātauranga Māori is distinct from science.
A counter-letter was swiftly drafted and circulated by Shaun Hendy and Siouxsie Wiles — which claimed to “categorically” disagree with the professors’ views. I had the chance to sit down with Profs. Cooper and Clements to discuss the mischaracterisation of what they wrote, and the backlash they have endured. You can listen to the podcast here.
We invited dozens of those who had signed the open letter to join us in this conversation to discuss their differences of opinion. Not one of them was willing to participate.
Likewise, when we asked to sit down with Sandra Grey, the head of the Tertiary Education Union to discuss the implications of investigations like this on academic freedom, she was entirely uninterested in engaging.
You might agree with the authors of the letter about mātauranga Māori and science or you might not, but that's really not the point. Prof Cooper is Māori himself and has taught kaupapa Māori for decades — it is crazy that the academy is so ideologically captured that it would condone this pile-on. The fact that those who are orchestrating these bullying and censorious tactics have no interest in engaging in a discussion is very telling. As you'll often find, one side of the debate around free speech is almost always more tolerant than the other.
Journalist Graham Adams interviewed Prof. Cooper and concluded:
... we have ended up in a situation where a very distinguished Māori-Pākehā scientist who has helped thousands of Māori in their careers over several decades is being investigated by the Royal Society for what can only be described as holding a heretical view about the distinction between science and mātauranga Māori.
Who knew an eminent scientist expressing an honestly held opinion — that mātauranga Māori, while valuable as a form of knowledge, is not science — would end up dealing with an Inquisition in 21st century New Zealand?
In another piece Graeme Adams wrote for us, he outlines the remarkable achievements of the late Prof. Michael Corballis, who until his recent passing was also under investigation by the Royal Society.
Some have claimed that Prof. Corballis was the best chance Auckland University has ever had of acquiring a Nobel Prize as he was arguably the global authority on left-hemisphere/right-hemisphere issues in neuropsychology. "Yet — despite having awarded him the Rutherford Medal — a full fortnight after his death the society had still not written an obituary. Unfortunately, Corballis had lately been relegated to zero from hero. His crime was effectively one of heresy."
Steven Pinker who celebrated the life of his former professor with a laudatory tweet, pulled no punches when he was asked about this issue while being interviewed by Kim Hill on RNZ over the weekend:
Silencing or punishing someone for an opinion runs counter to reason. … No one is infallible; no one is omniscient. The only way our species has been able to do anything worthwhile is by voicing opinions and allowing them to be criticised…
If you’ve got a regime where merely voicing an opinion gets you silenced or punished then we’ve turned off the only mechanism we have of discovering knowledge. It is a way of locking ourselves into error…
If we have a regime that can subject someone to an investigation based on an opinion, we know from history that’s the way totalitarian autocracies work and oppressive theocracies work.
The Free Speech Union is committed to standing up for these distinguished professors, and their academic freedom.
Because of donations from supporters just like you, we have been able to cover the legal costs of the investigation and will be continuing to support them however we can.
Getting the message out there
If you pick up the NZ Herald today, be sure to check out our full-page advert highlighting what the Royal Society is doing.
Hate speech petition presented with strong cross-party support
Tens-of-thousands of Kiwis signed our petition calling on the Government to can their proposed hate speech laws, and on Thursday we presented this petition to a group of MPs at Parliament. Members from the ACT Party, the Green Party, and the National Party all agreed that the changes the Government is suggesting are dangerous.
This proves the point we constantly make: free speech is not a Left-Right political issue. Free speech is about defending the basic foundation of Kiwis' democratic liberties. MPs who agree on virtually nothing else joined together with us calling on the Government to drop their anti-speech proposals.
It is outrageous that the Government is proposing to impose harsher criminal sanctions for words than those that exist for a number of violent offences.
Even more so given that neither the Prime Minister nor the Minister of Justice have been able to say when asked what speech would or would not be prosecuted under the proposals.
This places an unacceptable and undemocratic burden on the police and the courts which will inevitably be left with the task of exploring the application of these laws.
We've already seen a Police Officer in Auckland tell street preachers that "there's a difference between hate speech and free speech" and that they were "very close to the line" before any such laws have even passed.
There is no public mandate for these changes. Of the 18,000 responses which were made to the Ministry of Justice about the hate speech proposals, 15,000 of them specifically endorsed the Free Speech Union's submission. Yet, despite the fact that an overwhelming majority of the submissions were facilitated by the Free Speech Union, the Minister has repeatedly refused to meet with us to discuss our concerns and has apparently requested none of the other ministers we have asked to meet with sit down with us.
We couldn't resist
It just so happened that as we were presenting the petition, Minister of Justice Kris Faafoi walked by, and so we had an opportunity to invite him in person to receive the petition signed by tens of thousands of Kiwis...
Unsurprisingly, he declined.
Hate Speech debate with Paul Hunt
The Chief Human Rights Commissioner, Paul Hunt, has been a strong proponent of the anti-speech laws the Government is proposing. Free Speech Union Member Daphna Whitmore was invited to debate him on this issue and did a stellar job.
In his conclusion, Hunt parahprased Isaiah Berlin and claimed "'Total liberty of the powerful, the gifted, is not compatible with the rights to a decent existence of the weak and less gifted.’ And that’s why we need a high-level threshold of hate speech. Otherwise, the liberty of wolves will lead to the death of lambs."
This perfectly encapsulates the patronising and infantilising perspective that underpins the justification for anti-speech laws, and which ironically insults the ethnic, religious, and gender minorities of our country.
As Daphna points out, anti-speech laws are a political project which the elite imposes top-down with threats of imprisonment. Why? Because they don't trust everyday Kiwis to respect others or tolerate differences.
Jonathan Rauch, who we were fortunate to have as our most recent SpeakEasy guest, tackles the argument of authorities purporting to speak on behalf of minorities head-on in his interview with Dr David Cumin available on our podcast.
Victory in Michael Laws Case as Codes of Conduct threaten to undermine accountability
As well as taking on the woke academy and paternalistic Government, we're also continuing to look into the way Codes of Conduct are being weaponised and used to silence our elected local representatives.
We were very pleased to let you know that the complaint against Otago Regional Councillor Michael Laws covered in previous newsletters has not been unheld upon investigation.
Reports we've received from within the Otago Regional Council have claimed that the letter we sent to the Chief Executive was instrumental in the investigation, and the complaint being dropped. This just shows the way these complaints are lobbed about to intimidate councillors.
Before the investigation was concluded, we sat down with Cr. Laws to discuss the case, and how common it is for these Codes to be used to attack elected representatives by bureaucrats. We doubt these Codes are lawful and are continuing work in examining their use to undermine democratic accountability.
Council codes of conduct: Facebook Live – Thursday 7pm
On Thursday night, at 7pm, Free Speech Union Council Member and lawyer Stephen Franks will be sitting down with 3 Councillors from around the country to hear their stories concerning the opposition they have faced from Code of Conduct complaints, and proposals they have to improve the system, and defend free speech. We'll be going live on our Facebook Page, so make sure you have liked our page to receive a notification when we go live.
The attacks on free speech simply remind us again and again why a collaborative effort is needed to defend this core liberty. We are only able to operate because of members and supporters like you.
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A professor without honour in his own country
Renowned psychologist Steven Pinker marked the death of his former teacher New Zealander Michael Corballis with a laudatory tweet. NZ’s Royal Society — of which Corballis was a Fellow and recipient of its most prestigious award — still hasn’t provided an obituary after putting him under investigation for his views on mātauranga Māori. Graham Adams reports.
After Auckland University emeritus professor Michael Corballis died on November 13, the celebrity scientist and public intellectual Steven Pinker tweeted to his 736,000 followers: “Sad to learn of the death of cognitive psychologist Michael Corballis, who taught me stats at McGill (I cite his lectures in Rationality) & did brilliant work on handedness, mental rotation, & [evolution] of lang. Also urbane, charming, witty, irreverent.”
The Harvard University professor of psychology expressed similar sentiments last December when Corballis published his autobiography, “Adventures of a Psychologist: Reflections on What Made Up the Mind”, which tracked his brilliant career from growing up on a sheep farm in New Zealand to teaching at McGill University in Canada before returning to Auckland University.
Pinker: “Michael Corballis is among the world’s deepest and most creative cognitive scientists, and he illuminates every subject he takes on with insight, wit, and charm. We’re fortunate that he has stepped back to and applied these gifts to the science of mind.” Five years ago, the Royal Society of New Zealand thought very highly of Corballis too. In 2016, it awarded him the Rutherford Medal, its most prestigious award, for his work on brain asymmetries, handedness, mental imagery, language, and mental time travel.
The award — named after Ernest Rutherford, our most famous scientist and Nobel laureate, who pioneered the orbital theory of the atom — bestows a medal and prize of $100,000. In its statement, the awards panel outlined Professor Corballis’s achievements: “He is a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the Association of Psychological Scientists, the American Psychological Association and the Royal Society of New Zealand.
“He is an Honorary Fellow of the International Neuropsychology Symposium and the New Zealand Psychological Society. He was awarded the Shorland Medal from the New Zealand Association of Scientists in 1999, a James Cook Research Fellowship from the Royal Society of New Zealand in 2000 and the Hunter Award from the New Zealand Psychological Society in 2006.”
The panel also noted: “Professor Corballis has written a string of popular books including: The Lopsided Ape, From Hand to Mouth, The Recursive Mind, Pieces of Mind and The Wandering Mind. These titles have made the latest thinking on difficult topics such as the origins of human language, mental time travel and the question of human uniqueness easily accessible to a broad audience.”
Some senior academics say Corballis was the best chance Auckland University has ever had to snare a Nobel Prize given that he was arguably the leading authority in the world on left-hemisphere / right hemisphere issues in neuropsychology. Yet — despite having awarded him the Rutherford Medal — a full fortnight after his death the society had still not written an obituary. Unfortunately, Corballis had lately been relegated to zero from hero. His crime was effectively one of heresy.
At the time of his death, he was being investigated by the Royal Society — along with two other Fellows, Professors Robert Nola and Garth Cooper — with a view to expulsion.
They were among seven eminent professors who signed a letter published in the Listener in July that objected to mātauranga Māori (Māori knowledge) being given equal status in the school science curriculum with what an NCEA working group referred to as “Western” science. The Royal Society quickly denounced the professors: “The recent suggestion by a group of University of Auckland academics that mātauranga Māori is not a valid truth is utterly rejected by Royal Society Te Apārangi.
“The society strongly upholds the value of mātauranga Māori and rejects the narrow and outmoded definition of science outlined in The Listener letter to the editor. It deeply regrets the harm such a misguided view can cause.”
What was baffling about the society’s statement — apart from the fact it felt moved to make one at all — is that it appeared to be responding to a letter the professors hadn’t actually written. They never said anything that implied mātauranga Māori isn't a “valid truth” — whatever that means — but simply that, in their opinion, it isn’t science. The professors also upheld “the value of mātauranga Māori” in their letter, stating that, “Indigenous knowledge is critical for the preservation and perpetuation of culture and local practices, and plays key roles in management and policy.” They also acknowledged that “Indigenous knowledge may indeed help advance scientific knowledge” — even if “it is not science”.
The society’s assertion that the professors were using a “narrow and outmoded definition of science” also seems odd given that the society itself didn’t go as far as to claim mātauranga Māori is scientific — even if its statement implies it might be able to be roped into a more expansive and more modish view of science than the one the professors hold.
The society has dropped its charges against Corballis posthumously but Professors Nola and Cooper are still in its sights. Unsurprisingly, the issue is causing deep divisions within the Royal Society.
Theoretical chemist Peter Schwerdtfeger a German scientist, who holds a chair in theoretical chemistry at Massey University in Auckland and is the Director of the Centre for Theoretical Chemistry and Physics, the head of the New Zealand Institute for Advanced Study, and former president of the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation, one of Germany’s premier scientific and research institutes, commented:
“This witch hunt against the authors of the Listener article has to stop immediately. And shame on those who are drawing the racist card without even having allowed for a much needed and timely discussion on the involvement of mātauranga Māori in science teaching.
“Many of my colleagues are too scared to speak out because they are attacked by the post-modernist ideologists. As a (yet) Fellow of the Royal Society, I am deeply embarrassed and shocked about this investigation, and perhaps a review of the Royal Society NZ is required to avoid leaving a sizeable stain in their history books.”
It is an open question whether the Royal Society can survive this scandal. Like other organisations that have abandoned their founding principles for more fashionable standards, oblivion and irrelevance awaits.
Perhaps what is particularly telling about the nature of this “witch hunt” is that it has been reported that three of the five complainants to the society dropped out when it became clear they would have to be identified for the inquiry to proceed.
It seems they were happy to help damage others’ careers and reputations anonymously but not quite as keen to put their own on the line by coming forward in public.
In contrast, in an interview with Kim Hill on RNZ on Saturday, Pinker made his own position very public.
“Silencing or punishing someone for an opinion runs counter to reason. … No one is infallible; no one is omniscient. The only way our species has been able to do anything worthwhile is by voicing opinions and allowing them to be criticised…
“If you’ve got a regime where merely voicing an opinion gets you silenced or punished then we’ve turned off the only mechanism we have of discovering knowledge. It is a way of locking ourselves into error…
“If we have a regime that can subject someone to an investigation based on an opinion, we know from history that’s the way totalitarian autocracies work and oppressive theocracies work.
“We know that the countries that have done well — the liberal democracies — have had freedom of speech and freedom of inquiry.”
Later in the interview, Pinker made it explicit who he was referring to as having been silenced: “My beloved former professor Michael Corballis…”
Graham Adams has been involved in publishing in New Zealand for the past 40 years as a journalist, columnist, reviewer, magazine editor and subeditor. He has also worked as a book editor and screenwriter. He has a BA in psychology and French, and a MA in classical Greek, from the University of Auckland. He lives on Auckland’s North Shore with his partner, Megan. He believes strongly in free speech.