Māori professor under investigation for views on mātauranga Māori

Dr Garth Cooper has devoted his career to helping fellow Māori but he now finds himself in the gun over his opinions about science and indigenous knowledge. Graham Adams reports from the front lines of the culture wars.

Prof Garth Cooper

New Zealanders like their heroes talented and modest and preferably devoted to public service as well. Sir Edmund Hillary is the exemplar of that breed and very few have the mana he enjoys in our collective consciousness. Nevertheless, there are many others similarly talented and dedicated to the collective good but who go largely unnoticed outside their professional lives. One such is Professor Garth Cooper, who is suddenly in the news because he is under disciplinary investigation by the Royal Society Te Apārangi, the nation’s premier organisation promoting science and the humanities.Cooper is a Fellow of the society and — alongside eminent philosopher of science Robert Nola — risks being expelled from the nation’s most prestigious academic club.

The reason for the investigation is that Cooper and Nola were among seven professors who wrote to the Listener in July questioning a government working group’s proposal to give mātauranga Māori (Māori knowledge) parity with what were described as other “bodies of knowledge” — “particularly Western / Pākehā epistemologies” — in the school science curriculum. In other words, Māori knowledge would effectively be given equal standing with physics, chemistry and biology.

While the professors acknowledged “Indigenous knowledge is critical for the preservation and perpetuation of culture and local practices, and plays key roles in management and policy,” they concluded that, “In the discovery of empirical, universal truths, it falls far short of what we can define as science itself.” They also responded to the working group’s claim that science had been used as “a rationale for colonisation of Māori and the suppression of Māori knowledge”. The professors conceded that science — like literature and art — “has been used to aid colonisation” but stated: “Science itself does not colonise.”

In the uproar that followed, their views were denounced by organisations including the Royal Society, the New Zealand Association of Scientists, and the Tertiary Education Union — as well as the professors’ own Vice-Chancellor, Dawn Freshwater. Notably, none of the professors’ critics defended mātauranga Māori as being scientific. Freshwater, for instance, lamented the “hurt and dismay” caused by the professors’ stance on “whether mātauranga Māori can be called science” but she never went beyond faintly praising it as a “distinctive and valuable knowledge system”.

Dr Siouxsie Wiles and Dr Shaun Hendy — who have been highly visible in providing scientific backing to political judgments by the Prime Minister over the past 18 months during the Covid pandemic — went as far as to co-author an open letter, announcing they “categorically” disagreed with the professors’ views. Curiously for a pair of prominent scientists, they responded to the professors’ assertion that, “Science is helping us battle worldwide crises such as Covid, global warming, carbon pollution, biodiversity loss and environmental degradation” with the baffling statement: “Putting science on a pedestal gets us no further in the solution of these crises.” Dr Wiles also tweeted a request for reinforcements: “Calling all academics in Aotearoa New Zealand. Add your name to the open letter if you are also appalled by that letter claiming to defend science published last week in the NZ Listener. It's caused untold harm and hurt & points to major problems with some of our colleagues.” More than 2000 academics, students and alumni from all over New Zealand answered her call and signed (although how many had actually read the original letter to the Listener remains uncertain).

Shortly before news of the Royal Society’s disciplinary action against Cooper and Nola broke, the Times Higher Education — the bible for hundreds of thousands of academics internationally — discussed the “unintended consequences” of the push for the “incorporation of Māori understandings into curricula”, and asked whether debate was being stifled. 

On November 11, under the heading “Does the teaching of indigenous knowledge need to be examined?”, the magazine’s Asia-Pacific editor, John Ross, outlined the expanding role of Māori language and culture in New Zealand before interviewing some of the protagonists in the national discussion that erupted in the wake of the Listener letter. The Royal Society declined to answer Ross’s question of how it had decided the professors’ letter was not only “misguided” but caused “harm”. Others — no doubt mindful of possible risks to their academic careers — offered their opinions anonymously. Professor Cooper was happy to respond. He said that although he didn’t speak te reo — because his Maori grandmother “thought my brother and I should learn English” — he nevertheless knew “quite a lot” of words in the language. He went on to explain that the main reason he signed the Listener letter was because he was “concerned [that teaching] Māori kids about the colonising effects of science [would] lead to loss of opportunity”. 

Crediting Ross Ihaka — a Māori mathematician who co-created the R open-source programming language — with producing “the most important thing that’s come out of New Zealand in the last 100 years”, Cooper worried about “young Māori scholars that would be the next Ross Ihaka basically missing out because they were told that science was a colonising influence of no interest to them.“ In response to this last assertion, a Māori academic — who had signed the open letter penned by Siouxsie Wiles and Shaun Hendy — emailed Cooper to ask if he “could please elaborate on how you came to the conclusion about what young Māori scholars want?”

The Listener LetterIn his reply (supplied to this writer), Professor Cooper thanked her for her query — and took the opportunity to “elaborate” as requested. His reply is worth quoting at length to give some idea of the calibre of the doctor and medical researcher the Royal Society is now considering expelling over his defence of scientific method: 

“I have taught young Māori scholars in medicine and in science for more than 30 years; during that time, I talked to several hundred (I estimate more than 400) about their career aspirations. Before that, I served as a medical officer (MB ChB) in Rotorua (1979-1980) where I served as house officer for Sir Peter Tapsell) and then in Auckland (1981-1985), including several years in South Auckland (based in Middlemore Hospital), where I looked after many (i.e. a large number) of young Māori as patients). During my time in Auckland, along with Dr David Scott, I pioneered a programme for a new approach to health care delivery in Ōtara, where a large proportion of the patients were Māori (1983-1985). I wrote and delivered the first course in New Zealand for lay community health workers, who went on to receive recognition by the Mayor of South Auckland (1985). The place where this programme was developed was the Whaiora Marae, where I worked part-time along with my roles in Middlemore. In my role as Professor in Biochemistry and Medicine at the University of Auckland (1995-present), I have personally written courses for young Māori and Pasifika students — specifically as part of the Māori and Pacific Admission Scheme programme at the University of Auckland — perhaps you know of it? This was between ~1994-2006. These courses were credited with leading to a substantial increase in the overall pass rate…" 

“I contributed, along with Profs Michael Walker and Linda Smith (~2005-2007), to the initial writing of the first (successful) application that led to the funding of Te Pai o Te Māramatanga, during which time I discussed their futures with numbers of Māori scholars who were entering into research careers through that programme. I have supervised young Māori and Pasifika scholars to completion of MSc and PhD programmes in science and in medicine. This involved in-depth interaction with these students over several years. They worked on my research programme on the origins and experimental therapeutics of type 2 diabetes, which I have undertaken over 40+ years because it is of major interest to Māori (kaupapa Māori research; vision Mātauranga). I have presented my teaching and research programmes to iwi at Hui a Tau, including Tainui/Waikato (with Dame Te Ata present), and to Te Rarawa and to Ngā Puhi. My teaching/research programmes were endorsed on each occasion."  

“I was elected and served as a member of the Māori committee of the Health Research Council of New Zealand (for six years if I remember correctly), during which time I had the privilege of meeting with large numbers of young Māori at different marae from the deep South (Ngai Tahu) to the far North (Te Rarawa, Ngā Puhi). I served in a supervisory role on the Health Research Council for three more years, where my role was as an advocate for research in Māori Health. I also had the good fortune to be mentored during this time by people including Irihapeti Ramsden and Eruhapeti Murchie and was able to learn from them their views of the aspirations of young Māori. I also spent several years providing oversight and governance for a therapeutic intervention programme in the Bay of Plenty and East Cost of Te Ika-a-Maui for hepatitis B; this involved several thousand patients, most of whom were Māori, many of whom were young. I had the opportunity to learn from many of them at that time. Recently, I spent in-depth time with a young Māori MSc student who explained to me that he was very upset at Māori staff members who insisted on taking a one-sided view concerning his background, which was Pākehā (i.e. Ngāti Pākehā) as well as Māori, and that he was equally proud of both his Māori and non-Māori backgrounds. Finally, I also know what I think personally as one with Māori heritage (Ngāti Mahanga of Tainui/Waikato as well as Ngāti Pākehā) who underwent primary, secondary and tertiary education in New Zealand. In all, I estimate that I have provided substantive input and career guidance to as many as 5000 young Māori over 30+ years in these various roles. So this is how I know about young Māori and their aspirations.”

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Astonishingly, this response to a specific query is not an exhaustive résumé of Professor Cooper’s work. As someone who is well acquainted with the extent of his contribution to medicine and health said: “There is much more he has done which he doesn’t discuss. Calling him ‘humble’ risks understatement.” So, 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?

 

**********

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.


In Defence of Science Article

The Listener Letter (published in 31 July 2021 edition of the New Zealand Listener)

The Listener Letter

In defence of science (republished with author's permission). 

A recent report from a Government NCEA working group on proposed changes to the Māori school curriculum aims “to esure parity for mātauranga Māori with the other bodies of knowledge credentialed by NCEA (particularly Western/Pakeha epistemologies)”. It includes the following description as part of a new course: “It promotes discussion and analysis of the ways in which science has been used to support the dominance of Eurocentric views (among which, its use as a a rationale for colonisation of Māori and the suppression of Māori knowledge); and the notion that science is a Western European invention and itself evidence of European dominance over Māori and other indigenous peoples.”

This perpetuates disturbing misunderstandings of science emerging at all levels of education and in science funding. These encourage mistrust of science. Science is universal, not especially Western European. It has origins in ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, ancient Greece and later India, with significant contributions in mathematics, astronomy and physics from mediaeval Islam, before developing in Europe and later the US, with a strong presence acoss Asia.

Science itself does not colonise. It has been used to aid colonisation, as have literature and art. However, science also provides immense good, as well as greatly enhanced understanding of the world. Science is helping us battle worldwide crises such as Covid, global warming, carbon pollution, biodiversity loss and environmental degradation. Such science is informed by the united efforts of many nations and cultures. We increasingly depend on science, perhaps for our very survival. The future of our world, and our species, cannot affort mistrust in science.

Indigenous knowledge is critical for the preservation and perpetuation of culture and local practices, and plays key roles in management and policy. However, in the discovery of empirical, universal truths, it falls far short of what we can define as science itself.

To accept it as the equivalent of science is to patronise and fail indigenous populations; better to ensure that everyone participates in the world’s scientific enterprises. Indigenous knowledge may indeed help advance scientific knowledge in some ways, but it is not science.

Kendall Clements
Professor, School of Biological Sciences, University of Auckland 

Garth Cooper, FRSNZ
Professor, School of Biological Sciences, University of Auckland

Michael Corabllis, FRSNZ
Emeritus Professor, School of Psychology, Universituy of Auckland

Douglas Elliffe
Professor, School of Psychology, University of Auckland

Robert Nola, FRSNZ 
Emeritus Professor, School of Philosphy, Universituy of Auckland

Elizabeth Rata
Professor, Critical Studies in Education, University of Auckland

John Werry
Emeritus Professor, Department of Psychological Medicine, University of Auckland

***

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Free Speech Union is fighting for Academic Freedom

Free Speech Union (New Zealand) Incorporated

Dear Supporter,

There is a worrying trend in universities and research institutions attempting to muzzle the very people whose job it is to ask questions. Some subjects are simply now off-limits. Academic freedom is under attack.

I'm emailing with disturbing news regarding the New Zealand Royal Society, which is on the cusp of giving in to the censors and expelling two scientists for signing a letter defending science.

The Royal Society has just launched a disciplinary investigation against a group of academics. I'm emailing to ask for your help defend the academics and stand up for academic freedom.

The Royal Society is prosecuting complaints against scientists for defending science!

The Free Speech Union can reveal that two academic fellows are being investigated for being among those to put their name to a letter In Defence of Science which was published earlier this year in The Listener.

Matauranga Maori Listener ArticleThe full text of the letter is copied at the end of this email

For context, the seven professors who co-signed the letter were responding to an NCEA working group that proposed that mātauranga Māori should have “parity” with “the other bodies of knowledge credentialed by NCEA (particularly Western / Pākeha epistemologies)” in the school science curriculum.

The key argument of the letter was that “...Indigenous knowledge is critical for the preservation and perpetuation of culture and local practices and plays key roles in management and policy. However, in the discovery of empirical, universal truths, it falls far short of what we can define as science itself…”.

They further opined: “Science is universal, not especially Western European. It has origins in ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, ancient Greece and later India, with significant contributions in mathematics, astronomy and physics from mediaeval Islam before developing in Europe and later the US, with a strong presence across Asia”.

The group who signed the letter faced swift backlash online, lead by Shaun Hendy and Siouxsie Wiles:

Siouxie

Dr Barry Hughes of the Tertiary Education Union also wrote a letter to the authors on behalf of the Union. He opened by affirming that the authors were entitled to express their views, but informed them that “[TEU] members found your letter “offensive”, “racist”, and reflective of a patronising, neo-colonial mindset in which your undefined version of “science” is superior to – rather than complementary to – indigenous knowledge”.

Similarly, rather than defend the right of academics to attempt to grapple with difficult questions, Auckland University's Vice-Chancellor put out a statement stating that asking the question of “whether mātauranga Māori can be called science has caused considerable hurt and dismay among our staff, students and alumni”.

She too also implied the academics had disrespected mātauranga Māori, asserting that "mātauranga Māori [is] a distinctive and valuable knowledge system".

There is nothing, however, in letter to The Listener that contradicts this. In their letter, the authors argue that mātauranga Māori and science are epistemically distinct, and that "indigenous knowledge is critical for the preservation and perpetuation of culture ... and plays key roles in management and policy". So, clearly, the letter actually supports the view that mātauranga Māori is valuable.

Notably, none of the criticisms levelled at the authors attempted to grapple with the author's key contention: that mātauranga Māori is simply distinct from science.

While the debate may rage as to whether the author's assertions are correct, there should be no doubt that the debate must be allowed to take place. That's why we have offered to help the academics, and crowdfund to defend them with an academic freedom fighting fund.

Whereas the letter to The Listener comprised only a reasoned argument – whether or not it is deemed valid and sound – some critics have resorted to ad hominem attacks on the authors, in particular accusing them – both directly and by implication – of racism. 

Similarly, proclaiming "hurt and dismay" and pointing to "major problems with some colleagues" does not help the rest of us understand why mātauranga Māori should be considered science. 

To shut down debate of this kind is to undermine the purpose of the academy: to wrestle with what we know, and try and extend it.

Donate to our Academic Freedom Fund>>> Donate now to defend academic freedom <<<

Ironically, the Royal Society was set up for the very purpose of advancing and promoting science, technology, and the humanities in New Zealand. Now it's trying to expel scientists for defending science. We have to help the scientists to fight back.

It is ironic that The Royal Society is trying to purge from the acadmy the authors of the letter.

The investigation of The Listener co-signees sends a chilling message to other academics: state contentious views at your own peril.

If the complaint is upheld, it will only serve to make academics feel less safe to venture honestly-held views on contentious issues in the future. This cannot be allowed to stand. 

The process of the human pursuit of knowledge depends on free speech, including of those who may hold views contrary to the mainstream. The Royal Society are abandoning its own heritage and the proud traditions of academic freedom which historically has been the defining mechanism allowing scientific knowledge to develop.

When academics can no longer ask questions or make certain arguments, without the fear of personal and professional reprisals, academic freedom is in peril. We must stand with those who are punished and have their reputations denigrated for having the audacity to venture honestly-held views on contentious issues.

The Free Speech Union is starting a fighting fund for Academic Freedom. The academics have been called ‘racist’ and smeared by fellow scientists and are now having to engage lawyers to defend their opinions on science from an institution that should, instead, be encouraging debate and promoting science. This fight is a fight for the right of anyone to peacefully and reasonably voice their opinion. 

Times like this make us question the real value we put on our liberties and freedoms. We are not willing to let the Royal Society, or anyone, bully and censor academics doing their job without reminding them that we still have free speech in this country.

Let's keep it that way. 

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Thank you to all of those who make these effort's possible. Our work relies on your support.

Dr David Cumin

David sig
Dr David Cumin
Spokesperson
Free Speech Union


The Listener Letter 

In defence of science

A recent report from a Government NCEA working group on proposed changes to the Māori school curriculum aims “to esure parity for mātauranga Māori with the other bodies of knowledge credentialed by NCEA (particularly Western/Pakeha epistemologies)”. It includes the following description as part of a new course: “It promotes discussion and analysis of the ways in which science has been used to support the dominance of Eurocentric views (among which, its use as a a rationale for colonisation of Māori and the suppression of Māori knowledge); and the notion that science is a Western European invention and itself evidence of European dominance over Māori and other indigenous peoples.”

This perpetuates disturbing misunderstandings of science emerging at all levels of education and in science funding. These encourage mistrust of science. Science is universal, not especially Western European. It has origins in ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, ancient Greece and later India, with significant contributions in mathematics, astronomy and physics from mediaeval Islam, before developing in Europe and later the US, with a strong presence acoss Asia.

Science itself does not colonise. It has been used to aid colonisation, as have literature and art. However, science also provides immense good, as well as greatly enhanced understanding of the world. Science is helping us battle worldwide crises such as Covid, global warming, carbon pollution, biodiversity loss and environmental degradation. Such science is informed by the united efforts of many nations and cultures. We increasingly depend on science, perhaps for our very survival. The future of our world, and our species, cannot affort mistrust in science.

Indigenous knowledge is critical for the preservation and perpetuation of culture and local practices, and plays key roles in management and policy. However, in the discovery of empirical, universal truths, it falls far short of what we can define as science itself.

To accept it as the equivalent of science is to patronise and fail indigenous populations; better to ensure that everyone participates in the world’s scientific enterprises. Indigenous knowledge may indeed help advance scientific knowledge in some ways, but it is not science.

Kendall Clements
Professor, School of Biological Sciences, University of Auckland 

 

Garth Cooper, FRSNZ
Professor, School of Biological Sciences, University of Auckland

Michael Corabllis, FRSNZ
Emeritus Professor, School of Psychology, Universituy of Auckland

Douglas Elliffe
Professor, School of Psychology, University of Auckland

Robert Nola, FRSNZ 
Emeritus Professor, School of Philosphy, Universituy of Auckland

Elizabeth Rata
Professor, Critical Studies in Education, University of Auckland

John Werry
Emeritus Professor, Department of Psychological Medicine, University of Auckland

***

Donate to our Academic Freedom Fund


Adieu Liberal Education: Bienvenue Post-College Daycare

Academic freedom is defined in s161 of the Education Act as “the freedom of academic staff and students, within the law, to question and test received wisdom, to put forward new ideas and to state controversial or unpopular opinions”. Without an unwavering commitment to this principle, universities are unable to perform their role as the ‘critic and conscience’ of society, which the Act also requires of them. But in recent years we have seen attempts by university administrators to limit this cardinal rule in response to the purported need to protect students from ideas that risk causing ‘harm’; an undefined, ambiguous notion that may often be reduced to fear of having one’s worldview challenged. 

This limitation on academic freedom is informed by the notion that universities should be a ‘safe space’ for students, particularly those hailing from marginalised communities. But trying to create a safe space for feelings inevitably costs the ability of universities to play host to a safe space for ideas. 

Massey University's academic freedom policy, for example, revised after the Brash affair in 2018, pays lip service to the sanctity of academic freedom and freedom of speech. Yet it claims that these freedoms might properly be restricted by the University in order to “safeguard the safety, health and welfare of its students”. Previously, attempts to suppress the exercise of fundamental freedoms required more than vague pronouncements that a person is made unsafe, or has their well-being threatened, by the fact that somebody is discussing ideas they don’t like (perish the thought). 

As public institutions, universities have an obligation to uphold freedom of expression with the usual justified limits imposed by s5 of the Bill of Rights Act. Indeed, the only constraint envisioned by the legislation is that academic freedom must be exercised within the ‘bounds of the law’. But according to Massey’s proctor Giselle Byrnes, Massey’s ‘policy supports and validates academic freedom while emphasising that with this freedom comes the responsibility to ensure that others are neither harmed nor hurt in the exercise of this privilege.” 

This is not some difficult balancing act. It is an irreconcilable contradiction​ ​​​— either academic freedom is a right to be exercised within the bounds of the law, or it is a privilege to be exercised with regard to the feelings of others ​​​​— it cannot be both. And if it is the latter, it is difficult to see how our public institutions of higher learning can function if anyone who may find the confrontation of a debate stressful holds a veto power over them taking place.

It is a fact of life that asking questions runs the serious risk of offending others, and it is absolutely advisable that academics exercise their freedoms in accordance with the highest standards of not only ethics and professionalism, but simply manners and decency. But, to cite Professor Clark Kerr of the University of California, “The purpose of the university is to make students safe for ideas – not ideas safe for students”. While universities must be cognisant of their pastoral duties, they must also remain places where the space to think freely, to state controversial ideas, and to challenge orthodoxies is vigorously protected. 

What might be deduced from Massey’s policy specifically, and the troubling culture embraced in each of our universities generally, is that pastoral care has taken over from the academic and discursive role of universities. To place the potential for hurt feelings over academic freedom flies in the face of the whole purpose of a university; not for fragile minds to be coddled, but for robust thinking to be tested. In light of that, are universities now more akin to young-adult daycare centres than training institutions for tomorrow’s innovators and leaders? For surely it is only children who would need such patronising ‘protection’.  

 


Defence of Michael Laws: Letter to CE of Otago Regional Council

In response to media reporting on a Code of Conduct investigation that could see Otago Regional Councillors lose his committee chair and deputy chair roles, the Free Speech Union is seeking more information with a view of assisting Mr Laws or challenging the legality of the Code.

 


Email to Local Councillors calling for them to stand for free speech

Good morning,

 

History reveals that freedoms taken for granted are freedoms lost.  

Given your important work in local government, and the influence you have in your region, I wanted to write to introduce the work of the Free Speech Union.   

The New Zealand Free Speech Union is a registered trade union with a mission to fight for, protect, and expand New Zealandersrights for freedom of speech, of conscience, and of intellectual inquiry. We envision a flourishing New Zealand civil society that values and protects vigorous debate, dissenting ideas, and freedom of speech as cultural cornerstones. Our tens-of-thousands of supporters form a broad coalition of New Zealanders.

We are eager to work with you to ensure Kiwis' freedom of speech is protected. 

If you would like to hear more about our work, please come back to me and Id love to share more about specific projects were working on, such as our campaign against arbitrary hate speech laws, standing with cancelled academics, or ensuring newspaper censorship is challenged.

In what other Union would you find Matt McCarten, Chris Trotter, Judith Collins, and David Seymour all as members?

Given the diversity of opinions and perspective in our Union, there is virtually nothing that we will all agree on apart from the fact that we should all have the right to express our opinions and beliefs peaceably. 

Freedom of speech is just as crucial at the Council level as it is in Parliament or our universities. 

With division and polarisation on the rise, leaders like yourself have a role to play in ensuring our society retains free speech as a cultural cornerstone. Whether it is labour unions speaking up for workers rights or public commentators highlighting inconsistencies in progressive thinking; religious leaders leading their congregations in long held statements of faith or environmentalists standing for a liveable tomorrow, if we cant have the conversation we cant move forward together.      

Thats the scary thing- dialogue and speech across the country is being shut down. 

Would you stand with us in this important work to keep conversations open?

Please reach out if you would like to know more about our work, or if there is any help we can offer you in defence of free speech. 

Regards, 

 

Jonathan Ayling

Chief Executive   Free Speech Union  

Mob +64 21 842 215  |  Email [email protected]   

Free Speech Union (New Zealand) Incorporated  |  PO Box 10512, The Terrace, Wellington 6143  |  www.fsu.nz  


Letter to NZME Board regarding censoring advertising


Free Speech Union Council Position Paper on Covid-19 response measures

Free Speech Union Council Position Paper: Free Speech and COVID-19 Response Restrictions

 

The New Zealand Free Speech Union is a registered trade union with a mission to fight for, protect, and expand New Zealander’ rights to freedom of speech. Even in a severe health crisis we must resist pressure and moves to suppress dissenting views. That is not only because of the terrible precedent it will set. Society will always face fears and claims that unpopular or minority views are ‘dangerous’ to unity and common endeavour. 

We insist on preservation of free speech because it is most likely to protect the community trust in its leaders that will be essential if vaccination targets and other Covid measures are to work. 

Freedom of speech is not just the right of the minority to talk. Perhaps even more importantly it is our freedom to know, to ask, to challenge, and to test orthodoxy and consensus. It is our reassurance that our leaders will know they are at risk of exposure if they are wrong, or lying to us, Again and again, even within the short period of the Covid crisis, time has shown that ‘the authorities’ have been wrong, sometimes grievously so.  But our right to freedom of speech mean that most of us can be confident that if it was not mostly by mistake, or well-intentioned wishful thinking, we will sooner or later know the truth.

A society that abandons the right and the habit of permitting challenges to the claims of the powerful is a society bound to have escalating mistrust between the governed, and those who wield the powers to suppress information. Both our liberties and community cooperation are best served over the long run when elites know they cannot impose agreement, and must instead continue with the endless patient provision of facts and truth and  counter-argument. 

That is not costless. The freedom to dispute and to disagree can be expensive. It can even  “kill” some who are misled. But there is nothing in the history of our civilisation to tell us that fewer will eventually be killed by suppression of free speech, than by contesting falsehood with truth. 

 

There are aspects of COVID-19 response restrictions which relate to our work, but many do not.

 

The Council affirms the role free speech plays as the bedrock of almost all civil liberties, but  they are not one and the same. We confine ourselves to protection of free speech rights. There will be intense argument over whether restrictions imposed to to respond to COVID-19 infringe on civil liberties, and if so, whether the restrictions are justified under the balancing of interests to which many civil liberties are subjected. We will not engage in those debates.  

People will try to wrangle freedom of speech questions into civil liberty disputes partly because there are so few situations where that foundational freedom can be subordinated to competing purposes. The  Free Speech Union will resist being drawn in into such cases unless we can clearly advocate and educate on issues explicitly related to speech. For example, on questions such as vaccine mandates for employees, the Free Speech Union will not engage, unless and to the extent the measure is clearly intended primarily as a gag, not a protection for the employer’s business and other employees. And for a business or occupation where the proper purposes of the employment require public and private consistency of position, there may be legitimate obligations that enable the employer to insist on the employee avoiding contradiction. 

On issues such as a vaccine passport for international travel, again, it is not the role of the Free Speech Union to deliberate or advocate. However, if an employee faces disciplinary action in their workplace due to speech related to vaccine mandates or passports and it does not prejudice the purposes of their employment, we will stand in defence of such speech. Regardless of an individual's vaccination status or stance, we will fight for their right to state their views. 

 

Free speech must be respected, even in the face of scientific consensus. 

 

Though the Free Speech Union does not take a position on a matter outside its mission, for the record, every member of its  Council favours efforts to vaccinate as many Kiwis as possible. None of us share the views often attributed to “anti-vaxxers”. 

That makes it easy for us to understand those who would reach for coercive suppression of dissent on that effort. However, we believe that history, even very recent history, gives a clear warning that even if it were not a disastrous precedent, it would also be an own goal. We think that much of the current vaccine skepticism in NZ might be attributable to the hostility shown by our institutions to any expression of views thought to be disloyal to the ‘team of 5 million”. 

The official advice in NZ was against mask wearing for many months after it was prompted by practice in Asian. Then we made it mandatory. More examples exist than space would allow to recite  scientific orthodoxies found to be diametrically wrong, such as the decades long fight against the malignant effects of fats in butter, without reference to the negative effects of sugar. In many  cases the settled beliefs of scientists were proven wrong by brave and unpopular individuals, properly applying the scientific method. Frequently they had to popularise their work outside the scientific ‘community’. This method only operates effectively where free speech is protected.

Science needs free speech. It could not and did not emerge where the pious could enforce their views on what would be dangerous to social cohesion. Attempts to suppress dissent among professionals compromises science. 

 

Tolerance, not respect, is the essence of free speech. 

 

As dangerous as misinformation may be, censorship and an unwillingness to engage in debate and discussion also brings with it huge risks. Put simply, censorship doesn’t work. It more often draws sympathetic attention to  the ideas it seeks to suppress. If suspicion of power is at the root of a conspiracy theories, shutting down speech on a topic so that only a government’s narrative is permissible is fertiliser for mistrust. 

As impatient as we may be during a crisis, the price of staying an open society is being ready and willing to challenge ill-informed positions with better information. The relative few on the fringe will be bolstered by suppression, viewing it as validating their mission. Rather than shielding a poor idea (or a good idea) from scrutiny with censorship, a citizenship responsibility is to endure expression of ideas we detest, because that is part of the golden rule. To be sure of being free to express our own views, and to find out what others think, we need a shared and universal upholding of the right to express wrong views; and the right, to challenge them. 

We need the humility to remember the possibility that any of us may be wrong, even in our most fervent beliefs but through the debate and counter-debate enabled by free speech, truth will out.  

 


Why comedy is so often in the crosshairs

“You can’t joke about that”.

This was the response I got from a local commissioner to what remains my dream project — a comedy show based in a South Auckland instant loans company.

The chap was dead wrong, of course. The bleakness and danger these businesses pose to lower-socio-economic communities is exactly why they so desperately required ridiculing.

A good comedic grilling can be every bit as effective as investigative journalism. If anything, the comic has the advantage in that laughter is the sweetest medicine available to aid the consumption of some incredible bitter pills.

Dave Chappelle’s latest Netflix special “The Closer”, has generated controversy over his alleged “hate speech” aimed at the trans-community. At times, it echoed Richard Pryor’s disastrous appearance at a Hollywood Bowl gay rights fundraiser in 1977. At the event, a high-as-a-kite Pryor both confessed to having had gay sex (a huge admission for a major star in 1977) and launched an abuse-laden tirade at the audience for not being better allies to the black community. Chappelle also took aim at the LGBT community, telling his audience at one point “Gay people are minorities until they need to be white again”. A cursory understanding of wokeism makes clear why such a statement would be so wounding. But surely a black comedian has every right to level such a criticism, if that’s what they truly believe? The outrage at the special seems a strange abandonment of the woke imperative to listen to minority voices.

The saddest irony of the allegations of hate levelled at Chappelle by his would-be cancellers is that (SPOILER ALERT) most of us were brought to tears by his account of the death of his friend that rounded out the special, a transwoman named Daphne Dorman, who was incidentally harassed by an online mob for having previously supported Chappelle, only days before she committed suicide. With so many activists determined to associate the trans community in the wider public’s eyes with fear and censorship, the importance of his deeply moving and humanizing sketch can’t be underestimated. With it, Chappelle exposed that the oft-promoted suspicion — that society is bogged down with latent hatred, is really a fraud. Like Chappelle, most people are questioners — on a range of topics — yet we rarely forget the humanity of our fellow citizens.

By communicating this, Chappelle proves (as if there was ever real doubt) that the funniest people in the room are also more often the smartest. And it’s this penetrating insight, this truth, and the balls to come out and say it, that makes comedy so dangerous to anyone who holds to an orthodoxy.

Free Speech doesn’t just protect disagreeable speech — by allowing for it, it actively encourages it. This is precisely so that orthodoxies will always be under attack, never safe, constantly made vulnerable.

Received wisdom, no matter how good the intention, represents the end of progress. Comedy represents the earthquakes under institutionalized thinking and does us the crucial service of turning to rumble anything that cannot pass the stress test.

Maybe we should be rating this special using the Richter Scale.

Dane Giraud is a comedy and screenwriter and is a spokesperson for the Free Speech Union.

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Free Speech Union Newsletter

Free Speech Union (New Zealand) Incorporated

Dear Supporter,

Welcome to this week's free speech update.

NZME receives over 1000 emails re Speak Up For Women advertisements

More than a thousand of our supporters took the time to write to NZME regarding their U-turn on running advertisements featuring the definition of the word ‘woman’.

Speak Up For Women ODT Advert
Of course, private media institutions aren’t legally required to uphold freedom of expression like public venues, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t use our voices as consumers to implore them to uphold free speech values when they exercise so much practical power over the free exchange of ideas in our society. We are continuing to speak to the Herald about this incident to ensure that they maintain free speech as New Zealand's largest newspaper. 

To those who helped – thanks again.

Victory: South Wairarapa District Council U-turns on anti-speech Code of Conduct

We've been spending some time getting our heads around codes of conduct that allow majorities on our elected councils to silence minority or opposition voices.

Last week RNZ reported that South Wairarapa District Council’s (SWDC) Code of Conduct contains a clause prohibiting elected members from criticising council decisions, councillor colleagues, or even council policy.

The Code of Conduct states: "Elected members are entitled to make public statements expressing their opinion on matters before the council ... such statements may not criticise the conduct of the council, other elected members or officers of the council, nor should they undermine any existing policy or decision of the council."

Democracy depends on robust discussion. It is very difficult to hold those in power to account if criticising them is a code of ethics breach... In fact, in our opinion, the attempted gagging/restriction on councillors is unlawful.

Letter to SWDC
We reminded them that Councillors are elected to be the voices of the people in the corridors of power – not spin doctors for the Council. The voting public have a right to know how decisions are made in their community, not simply what decisions are ultimately made.

I'm pleased to tell you that the Council has accepted our arguments - with the CEO writing back to us reaffirming the Council's commitment to freedom of expression and informing us that the Council is looking to have the clause removed before the end of the year.

Oral Submission to Justice Select Committee on Conversion Practices Prohibition Legislation Bill

Last week, I submitted to the Justice Select Committee on the free speech concerns we have about the Conversion Practices Prohibition Legislation Bill. There are strongly held opinions on both sides of this debate and the Union doesn't take stances on the substance of issues such as this. Our concern is the way this law could limit open discussion and suppress the sharing of genuine opinions. 

Oral Submission to Justice Select Committee

This is a complex area, one where other countries have gone ahead of us. We hosted a panel of Australian experts who commented on the laws which have passed across the Tasman, and heard their perspectives on this Bill.

More than 100,000 Kiwis submitted on this Bill, almost three times as many as any other piece of legislation. From a free speech perspective, this is fantastic news, where a variety of opinions on this subject have been shared and heard. 

Nadine Strossen conversation is now available 

Last week, our very own Stephen Franks sat down with Nadine Strossen, prominent academic and former president of the ACLU, for our second members-only SpeakEasy. Nadine addressed the current threats to New Zealanders' freedom of expression, including the proposed hate speech laws, and spoke more broadly on the importance of free speech as a bedrock of other civil liberties.

Nadine Strossen SpeakEasy Graphic

For those who missed out, you can now catch the full interview on our podcast, or alternatively, head over to our Facebook page to watch the video recording in full. The "SpeakEasy" Q&A from our members has been edited out, as per our usual approach to these private conversations.

To participate in future SpeakEasys, you need to be a member of the Free Speech Union. Membership of the Free Speech Union costs only $50 for one year and entitles you to attend these exclusive events which include the opportunity to put your questions to our expert guests directly.

Is name suppression for criminals and the accused a free speech issue?

Our next Facebook Live event will be on Monday at 7pm with three prominent lawyers, Stephen Franks, Graeme Edgeler, and Daniel Kalderimis on name suppression and its relationship with free speech. Make sure you hit "like" on our Facebook page to get the notification.

Let Free Speech Sunlight Disinfect Covid Misinformation

Gisborne Herald

Last week I penned an op-ed on the issue of Covid-19 misinformation and free speech. I explore the question of how to distinguish between misinformation and free speech, including how measures to censor bad information are often counter-productive and may do more harm than good; especially as eradicating bad information (particularly on social media) is vastly more difficult than eradicating a virus – and boy do we know we know how hard that is!

🗣 New Podcast Episodes 🎤

This week on the Free Speech Union podcast, our spokesperson Rachel Poulain speaks with University of Auckland economist Prof. Ananish Chaudhuri about the importance of free speech and the troubling lack of criticism from the media and the Opposition, to the mounting examples of Government overreach we've seen throughout the pandemic response. A thought-provoking interview with a world-renowned mind! His Book 'Nudged into Lockdown? Behavioural economics, Uncertainty and Covid-19' is out soon, but you can listen to the podcast now

I also had the chance to sit down with Simon Bridges to talk about free speech, culture wars and his new memoir National Identity.

Podcast with Ananish Chaudhuri and Rachel Poulian

Alternatively, you can search for us on Spotify, Apple, or wherever good podcasts are found by entering 'Free Speech Union'. Make sure you're staying up to date with the rest of our work and other content we are releasing by liking our Facebook page. 

Thank you for your support.

Jonathan


Jonathan Ayling
Spokesperson

Free Speech Union
www.fsu.nz

PS. the Free Speech Union is totally reliant on members and supporters like you financially chipping in to make our work possible. You can make a confidential donation via our secure website.

Free Speech Union (New Zealand) Incorporated · New Zealand