Pages tagged "Academic Freedom"

  • Free Speech Union welcomes Government’s early steps to defend free speech


    24 November 2023


    Free Speech Union welcomes Government’s early steps to defend free speech   

    Policy objectives announced today by the Incoming-Government will strengthen free speech in New Zealand. The Free Speech Union welcomes these early steps to once again protect free speech as the foundation of our human rights framework, says Jonathan Ayling, Chief Executive of the Free Speech Union.   

    "The commitment to protect freedom of speech by ruling out the introduction of hate speech legislation and stopping the Law Commission’s work on hate speech legislation is a fitting conclusion to our long-running campaign to prevent hate speech law reform.  

    "Criminalising words that some may find offensive has never been the appropriate way to fix the underlying issues at play. Such laws are often used against the very minority communities they seek to protect.  

    "The final burial of these nonsense laws is a big win for free speech.  

    "Universities and academics have long held the position as society’s critic and conscience. They must be free to debate controversial issues, even if some find the ideas being debated viscerally unpleasant or even 'harmful'.

    "We welcome the proposed amendment to the Education and Training Act such that tertiary education providers receiving taxpayer funding must commit to a free speech policy in order to maintain this status.  

    "Throwing out the proposed hate speech laws and strengthening free speech in tertiary education are major wins for all Kiwis who care about the basic freedom to speak freely. 

    "We remain committed to our principles of non-partisanship and will remain vocal critics and opponents of any who oppose free speech, especially the Government. Likewise, we look forward to working closely with all who seek to protect and expand free speech in New Zealand." 


  • Research Finds Culture Of Fear Limiting Academic Freedom Across Kiwi Universities

    26 May 2023


    Research Finds Culture Of Fear Limiting Academic Freedom Across Kiwi Universities

    The Free Speech Union, in conjunction with Curia Market Research, has released its second Annual Academic Freedom Report, which considers the views of hundreds of academics from across each of New Zealand's eight universities. "Academic freedom is indispensable if the university is going to perform its role as the 'critic and conscience of society'. Yet, this report outlines considerable concerns for Kiwi academic freedom and the culture of open debate and research in our universities. It deepens concerns that we have raised for some time about the ability for Kiwi academics to voice controversial or unpopular views", says Jonathan Ayling, Chief Executive of the Free Speech Union.

    "A majority of comments from academics reflected concerns about the state of academic freedom, with a clear sense of growing difficulty in raising and discussing a range of issues in the university context. This was seen at all levels of academic discourse, including with colleagues, university management, students, teaching, or speaking in public.

    "Many responses referred to a 'climate of fear' and a large number mentioned concerns about job security of barriers to promotion for expressing the 'wrong' views. Across every metric, responses indicate academics feel less free than they did last year.

    "Concerningly, this report shows that a majority of academics who responded at five of our eight universities disagreed that they were free to state controversial or unpopular opinions, even though this is one of the specific features of academic freedom as defined in the Education and Training Act 2020. Across all eight universities, only 46% of academics agreed they felt free to question received wisdom and state controversial and unpopular opinions. The rest disagreed.

    "When asked about their willingness to speak about the Treaty of Waitangi and colonialism, at least one-third (30%) of academics at every single university said they would feel ‘Not at all comfortable’. Almost half (45%) of academics from Otago were ‘Not at all comfortable’.

    "Freedom in the university sector is stagnating, and its leaders either don’t know or don’t care. We need to pay attention and do something- our future is far more bleak without solutions, as disruptive or unexpected as they may be, that move us forward."

  • Academics Invited To Respond To Survey For Report On Academic Freedom

    22 March 2023


    Academics Invited To Respond To Survey For Report On Academic Freedom

    In conjunction with Curia Market Research, the Free Speech Union has distributed a survey on academic freedom to academics across each of the eight universities in New Zealand. Respect for academic freedom is a statutory responsibility for universities, and this data will reflect the lived experiences of academics concerning this freedom, says Jonathan Ayling, Chief Executive of the Free Speech Union.

    “The Free Speech Union envisions a flourishing New Zealand civil society that values and protects vigorous debate, dissenting ideas, and freedom of speech as cultural cornerstones. In order to achieve this, the rights for freedom of speech, of conscience, and of intellectual inquiry are vital. 

    “Last year, over 1,200 academics participated in the Survey, presenting important data on the experience of academics at universities across the country. The results to last year's survey showed prevailing freedom to test received wisdom and to voice opposition to the government. However, many academics also raised concerns about their freedom to discuss certain subjects or to voice opinions contrary to their peers.

    "The open contest of ideas is a hallmark of a liberal democracy. If this cannot be achieved in our universities, where will this debate be allowed? We thank the academics who will take the time to participate in this survey, and look forward to presenting the results.”

  • Te Pūkenga Teaching Staff Must Have Their Academic Freedom Upheld And Affirmed

    16 March 2023


    Te Pūkenga Teaching Staff Must Have Their Academic Freedom Upheld And Affirmed

    The academic freedom of the teaching staff at Te Pūkenga must be upheld and affirmed. Academics in New Zealand have the responsibility to be society’s 'critic and conscience', yet through instructions like those issued by the Chief Executive, academic freedom will suffer a death by 1000 cuts, says Jonathan Ayling, Chief Executive of the Free Speech Union.

    "We are very concerned by the apparent speech-policing by the Chief Executive of the mega-merger of institutes of technology and polytechnics. Teaching staff at Te Pūkenga have the right to academic freedom not only on principle, but also plainly legislated in the Education and Training Act 2020.

    ‘Academics are not public servants; not even close. The right to academic freedom explicitly includes the right to question and test received wisdom, to put forward new ideas (in whatever language necessary) and even to state controversial or unpopular opinions. Naturally, this would include ideas that politicians might disagree with. Therefore, it is imperative that academics not be constrained by any requirement for ‘political neutrality’.

    ‘We are also concerned by the use of a ‘style-guide’ with a list of words Te Pūkenga staff are expected not to use. Even if not mandatory or enforced, such expectations indicate a culture hostile to free speech that chills the free expression of staff. The way that ideas are described and spoken is often as vital as the ideas themselves. Debates must not be pre-determined through tone-policing.

    ‘We count many academic staff among our supporters. They have impressed upon us their belief that the instructions are antithetical to their important role. We call on Te Pūkenga Chief Executive Peter Winder to withdraw his instructions for staff to be ‘politically neutral’ and rescind the speech-policing ‘style guide’."

  • Free speech – a student's perspective

    When recently attending the Free Speech Unions event at the University of Otago, I was struck by two thoughts: who was there, and who wasnt. 

    I have already come to realise I traverse two increasingly separate worlds.  As a student, in the shadow of the ivory tower of academia, intersectionality, anti-racism, post-colonialism, and the destruction of anything old, white, and male reign supreme. Yet, among my wider family - and to many others in this country - these ideas butt up against the values which have enabled us to build this liberal democratic society. As an example, in the views of the latter group, co-governance is perceived as an unjustified exception to the principle of equal universal suffrage, which many have fought and died for. Whereas, in uni-land, it is seen as the opposite: a necessity to fix past injustice. 

    In between these two worlds, day-by-day, tension is growing as they diverge further apart. We are becoming a polarised country. It seems clear to me, that the only way to resolve these tensions within society is dialogue. Robust, critical, unrestricted, and open dialogue - and the fostering of a spirit of curiosity to understand the others world view. 

    Consequently, I find the failure of anyone on the political Left to turn up to the event hosted by the Free Speech Union at Otago University, which sought to both protect and define the limits of freedom of speech, highly disappointing.

    If freedom of speech means anything, it means giving others the right to say things you do not want to hear, even if these things appear upsetting or abhorrent. Moreover, up until very recent times the university has, as an institution, held itself out to be the arena in which all and any ideas can be contested - believing that it is only in this contest, no matter how difficult or controversial it may be, that truth can be found.

    However, it now seems that many (perhaps most) within the university system refuse to contribute to this contest. Moreover, for the most controversial topics, they even refuse to allow it to occur at all. Then, when those in the other world get louder and more vexatious towards them in reply, they are outraged. They pursue an ideology that seems to censor anyone who rejects their world view. It is ideological hubris in the extreme.

    All that said, I equally do not doubt that some people on the political Right simply wanted to use the event as a platform to hurl abuse. Their ad hominem attacks did not focus on the contest of ideas; they played the person, not the ball, and through this stifled genuine debate. I find it difficult to reconcile what I heard at points within the event with what I believe is freedom of speechs requisite duty; the duty to allow others to speak – and the duty to then listen. 

    Whilst, to his credit, Peter Williams did guide the panel (of Michael Woodhouse MP, James McDowall MP, and Dunedin Mayoral candidate Lee Vandervis) in fielding difficult questions from the crowd despite these outbursts, it was clear this was not the productive debate it could have been. 

    From the Left, there lacked the courage to front up and listen to those who think differently the courage to present their views on freedom of speech (and its limits) reasonably and rationally despite what they might have construed (probably correctly) as a hostile crowd. And from the Right the wisdom to control their emotions – to focus on reason – and give the debate the creditability it deserved. 

    Thus, instead of leaving with a concept of freedom of speech befitting of both worlds, I was left in a relative quagmire. I agreed with what was said by the panel for the most part – but it was unchallenged – and I am the poorer from it. Moreover, the outbursts unfortuantely justified the Left’s refusal to attend. The steady march of polarisation within our country carries on. 

    Free speech has been the foundation on which liberal democracy has been built. In all its imperfectection, I believe it remains demonstrably the best option available. The work of the Free Speech Union to protect the crucial liberty of speech, from both the Left and the Right is thus crucial.  Yet free speech is in itself not the full solution. It takes each of us to show up and respect the other side for the peace and stability we enjoy in our country to be maintained.


     *Tomas O’Brien is a supporter of the Free Speech Union and law student at Otago University 

  • Free Speech Union Releases First Annual Universities Ranking Report

    15 August 2022


    Free Speech Union Releases First Annual Universities Ranking Report

    The Free Speech Union has released the first Annual Universities Ranking Report, taking a critical look at the policies and practices of New Zealand’s universities with regards to free speech, and “grading” them on whether they suppress or encourage academic freedom and free expression on campus, says Jonathan Ayling, spokesperson for the Free Speech Union.

    “As an institution, the University is critical for introducing, challenging, and disseminating ideas in New Zealand culture and society. It has a traditional and statutory role as ‘critic and conscience’ of society and the Free Speech Union is determined to showcase universities that bear this responsibility, and to hold them to account when they don’t.

    “The report analyses the policies and reported practices of universities, alongside the perceptions of their own academic staff (as shown in the Annual Free Speech Union Academic Survey) to determine where speech is most free on campus. It has been reviewed by the Free Speech Union Academic Advisory Council and presents a thorough overview of the state of free speech at universities.

    “It is apparent which institutions uphold their role as ‘critic and conscience’ and those that seem to value their supposed progressive reputations over the ability for their staff and students to express themselves and perform research freely. The only university to receive a fail mark was Auckland University of Technology, which continues to display consistent opposition to free speech and its role as ‘critic and conscience’ of society.

  • Academic Freedom Poll Results

  • Research Reveals High Proportion Of Kiwi Academics Feel Unfree To Exercise Academic Freedom

    8 April 2022


    The Free Speech Union has released the results of the first Annual Survey on Academic Freedom, which paints a stark picture of the state of academic freedom in New Zealand. The research reveals that a significant minority (almost half) of the academics feel less free than free with respect to numerous core aspects of academic freedom surveyed. Part of the results are:

    • 45% of respondents felt more constrained than free to question and test received wisdom.
    • 47% of respondents felt more constrained than free to raise differing perspectives and argue against the consensus.
    • 47% of respondents felt more constrained than free to raise differing perspectives or to debate or discuss issues to do with gender or sex.
    • 50% of respondents felt more constrained than free to debate or discuss issues surrounding the Treaty, with almost one-third responding 0-2.5 (very unfree).

    “Universities are supposed to facilitate an environment in which academic staff can express ideas without fear of retribution or persecution– where they can question and test received wisdom and state controversial or unpopular ideas. These results confirm what many academics have been privately expressing to us – they simply don’t feel free to venture honestly-held views on contentious issues," says spokesperson for the Union, Jonathan Ayling.

    “That almost half of the academics feel less free than free in most areas surveyed is a worrying indictment on the state of the tertiary sector, and raises questions about whether our universities are doing enough to honour their statutory obligations to preserve and enhance the academic freedom of their staff as required in the Education and Training Act 2020.

    “Interestingly, the level of seniority did not necessarily translate into academics feeling they have greater academic freedom, with lecturers claiming to feel more free than professors. It is also clear that different academics perceive their level of academic freedom as dramatically different from their peers. For example, in terms of freedom to debate or discuss Treaty issues, 30% said it was very low (less than 2.5) and 36% said it was very high. It is unknown if this correlates to what their actual views on Treaty issues might be.

    “Universities are meant to be places where the marketplace of persuasion and ideas creates and advances knowledge, pushing us beyond the status quo. Without the freedom to think and to share ideas freely without fear of reprisals, knowledge cannot develop and society can’t progress. Intellectual inquiry is unable to lead us into new discoveries and ways of thinking when a sizeable minority of academics at our universities feel more constrained than free in most areas.

    "If academics and the tertiary educators of our nation feel more constrained than free on a majority of the questions raised, it is likely that the case is even more pronounced for students at universities across the country. The Free Speech Union will be releasing a subsequent survey shortly examining the perception of free speech by university students, also. Universities are failing to foster diverse perspectives, and this will have major implications in the options which we are aware of as we address complex and difficult questions going forward.

    "The Free Speech Union commissioned Curia Market Research to survey New Zealand academics on their perceptions of academic freedom. New Zealand academics were asked to express how free they felt in respect of eight facets of academic freedom, on a 0 to 10 scale where 0 is totally unfree and 10 is totally free. 1,266 respondents agreed to participate."


  • The intimidation of the Fellows


    Graham Adams

    Seventy notable academics have sent a motion of no-confidence to the Royal Society over its handling of the professors’ letter to the Listener — but some of their colleagues say they are too fearful to sign it. Graham Adams reports.

    If anyone ever believed universities are institutions where academics can speak their minds freely and openly, the stoush sparked by the letter that seven University of Auckland professors sent to the Listener last July should have thoroughly disabused them of that notion.

    What should have been an uncontroversial statement that mātauranga Māori is “not science” and therefore should not be included in the NCEA science syllabus led to a wave of condemnation and vilification of the professors. And this despite the fact they made it clear that indigenous knowledge was valuable both “for the preservation and perpetuation of culture and local practices” and in “key roles in management and policy”. What’s more, prominent Māori scholars such as Professor Sir Mason Durie had already acknowledged that science and indigenous knowledge are incommensurable.

    Even the professors’ own Vice-Chancellor, Dawn Freshwater, hung them out to dry with what one British journalist described as a “hand-wringing, cry-bullying email” that referred to the “considerable hurt and dismay” the letter had caused staff, students and alumni.

    Three of the professors, Robert Nola, Garth Cooper and Michael Corballis, were Fellows of the Royal Society NZ, but — rather than supporting their right to speak publicly about their concerns about mātauranga Māori in a science syllabus — it responded with a statement on its website that said their views were not only “misguided” but caused “harm”. 

    Last November, it also instigated disciplinary action against Nola, Cooper and Corballis after complaints were laid. (Corballis has since died.)

    After a barrage of criticism from famous international scientists, including Richard Dawkins, Jerry Coyne and Steven Pinker, our premier academy for science and the humanities abandoned its pursuit of the two professors in March. But if it hoped that would be the end of the matter it was sorely mistaken.

    Last week, 70 of the society’s more than 400 Fellows signed a letter to the society calling for a no-confidence motion to be debated at the 56th hui ā-tau o Ngā Ahurei Annual Fellowship on 28 April. 

    It began: “Many of us have lost confidence in the current Academy Executive and Council, whose actions seemingly have brought the society into disrepute, shutting down useful debate and bringing international opprobrium from leading scientists. 

    “We are further concerned about the lack of agency that Fellows have following the many restructures of the society over the last several years, and the spending of fellowship fees to cover lawyers’ costs and, presumably, public relations consultants to defend the society’s very poor processes and actions.”

    The three specific objections made in the letter were to the statement published on the society’s website last year (described as “ill-conceived, hasty and inaccurate in large part”); the way the society handled the complaints against Professors Nola and Cooper; and lastly the “unfortunate” fact the pair felt compelled to resign.

    As the letter put it: “It is extremely unfortunate that this process has led to the resignation from this Academy of two of its distinguished Fellows. One is a renowned philosopher of science, and the other is perhaps the strongest scientist of Māori descent in the society and is someone who has been active in supporting Māori students in education for decades, and who, along with other experts in science, offered an expert opinion that was rejected by the society as being without merit, and characterised as racist by members of the Academy Executive (and current and former Councillors).”

    The motion was moved and seconded by two of the nation’s most prestigious and accomplished mathematicians, Distinguished Professor Gaven Martin and Distinguished Professor Marston Condor.

    Among the 70 signatories were internationally renowned heavyweights, including Distinguished Professors Brian Boyd and Peter Schwerdtfeger — celebrated scholars in literature and theoretical chemistry respectively — and Professor Alan Bollard, a former Governor of the Reserve Bank, and chief executive and secretary to Treasury.

    Having a substantial chunk of the Royal Society’s Fellows formally object to its handling of the Listener letter and the fallout is momentous but what is also remarkable — and remarkably depressing — is that the number of signatories would have been even higher if other Fellows had not feared for their livelihoods and careers by signing.

    Gaven Martin’s covering letter included these dismal paragraphs: ”Sadly several other Fellows have also indicated they will vote in favour, but because of the potential harassment and bullying they believe they would receive (from some current and former members of the Academy and the RSNZ Council, and from colleagues in senior and other positions within their university), they do not wish to disclose their names in this document, especially if it becomes public.  

    “Many younger Fellows and others have said (again in writing) that their jobs would be at risk signing this letter. 

    “Two Fellows (major Royal Society NZ medallists) said this: ‘Better not [sign] at this stage… I agree with all the statements — but you can’t imagine the pressure being put on us. I will vote for the motion though.’”

    And: “In confidence I am disillusioned with RSNZ and I am too scared to sign anything for fear of what may happen to me at [the University of Auckland] if I do so.” 

    Martin noted: “This is a startling indictment of the situation in the research community in New Zealand at the moment, and of the way in which the RSNZ handled and exacerbated the controversy over the letter to the Listener.”

    The letter’s signatories ask that the society write to Professors Cooper and Nola, and to the estate of Professor Corballis, and apologise for its handling of the entire process. 

    They also want the society to “review its current code of conduct to ensure that this cannot happen again, and in future the actions of the Academy/Council are far more circumspect and considered in regards to complaints concerning contentious matters”. 

    Lastly, that the entire society “be reviewed, examining structure and function and alignment with other international academies, and the agency given its Fellows upon whom its reputation rests”. 

    While it is at it, the Royal Society might also like to apologise to the other four professors who signed the Listener letter but are not Fellows given that their reputations were all sullied by the statement the society put on its website about their views being misguided and harmful.

    However, you’d have to say that right now the society will have its hands full just dealing with the explosive no-confidence motion placed before it.

  • Why Robert Nola quit the New Zealand Royal Society

    Notes by Robert Nola just after quitting (March 2022)

    (1) The reasons have to do with lack of good support by the Royal Society NZ (RS) for important issues concerning science in a free society.

    (2) The dispute discussed here arose over a letter to the 31 July 2021 issue of the NZ Listener, called In Defence of Science. I was one of seven signatories to the letter.

    (3) Many good things are done by good researchers in RS; but not always because they are in it. Much of the good work might have been done before being made a fellow while the use of the acronym “FRSNZ” comes as a later bauble.

    (4) I received supporting comments from many Fellows during the dispute with the RS. And we should note that the Investigatory Panel (IP) set up by RS to look into the complaints against professors Garth Cooper and Robert Nola ended up largely in support; it recommended not to continue the investigation. But the views of the IP set up by the RS are not necessarily the same as those of RS itself.

    (5) The RS raised three lines of objection. The first was based on what we said in the letter. The main critical target in the letter was a claim in a Government NCEA working party report that science itself has been used to support Eurocentric views and colonisation (as opposed to people as agents of colonisation who might also use science). We strongly objected to this view. But I am not aware of any response to this from RS (though there should be one given the state of science and mathematics education in New Zealand). This did not get as much critical comment in the ensuing discussion as the final sentence of the letter which said: ‘indigenous knowledge … is not science’. This is a contestable claim which is worthy of debate, but none was given through the RS. Its response was to shut down dogmatically such discussion, as will be seen.

    (6) The second line of objection was a note on the RS website set up by the President Dr Brent Clothier and the Chair of the Academy Executive Committee Prof Charlotte Macdonald (it remained up for about 5 months).

    (7) It made false claims about what we allegedly said in the Listener letter about Mātauranga Māori. And it added that ‘it deeply regrets the harm such a misguided view can cause’ (presumably the view being that indigenous knowledge is not science!). No evidence was ever given concerning the harm allegedly caused. But this is also part of a view in which any harm caused by free speech, and even the extent of academic freedom, ought to lead to the curtailment of such freedoms. In fact, it has now become much more common for there to be requests for restrictions on academic freedom as defined in the relevant 2020 Act. I regard this as an unwelcome development.

    (8) Even though the Code of Ethics of RS endorses freedom of speech (but not obviously academic freedom), the Code clearly admits restrictions which I would regard as highly contestable. I am strongly of the view, contrary to the Code of RS, that no Code of Ethics should impose restrictions on the freedoms that the laws of the land would permit. This is a problem with many codes of ethics; they need to be challenged in the courts.

    (9) Clearly, we had no support in advocating views about science and knowledge which were not sanctioned by RS, especially in the case where indigenous “knowledge” systems are given a privileged protection immune from criticism. We are simply not permitted to say that indigenous knowledge is not a science (even though many scholars working in the field of Mātgauranga Māori say that it is not!). Even if one might disagree with these views, at least support of the doctrines of academic freedom and free speech would not lead one to reject these views out of hand. In sum, I regard the website note as obnoxious, as did many who commented to me about it.

    (10) The third line of objection arose when the RS took up five complaints about the letter to be addressed by their Complaints Procedures and their Code of Professional Standards and Ethics in Science, Technology and Humanities. Of the five complaints only two were made public and were investigated by an Investigatory Panel (IP). The final conclusion of the IP was that the complaints be taken no further. Their grounds were clause 6.4(i) of the Complaint Procedures which provides circumstances in which a Panel can conclude no further action should be taken, viz., “the complaint is not amenable to resolution by a Complaint Determination Committee, including by reason of its demanding the open-ended evaluation of contentious expert opinion….”. This an important win in the complaints’ procedure. But it is something which might have been arrived at by a more appropriate vetting procedure of the original complaints in the first place.

    (11) Clearly the investigation got bound up in the legalisms of a Code of Ethics rather than a discussion of a substantive issue about science, such as whether indigenous knowledge is, or is not, science. But one would have thought that this was something for which the RS might have at least provided a forum instead of evading it by retreating behind its Code. This is just one example of how codes might be employed to stifle free speech. It is a serious failure of the RS that it cannot have such a discussion of some claim rather than dogmatically adopting some stance which is then put beyond the pale of criticism.

    (12) Ten and eight years ago I published two papers on the nature of science with a co-author, Professor Gürol Irzik, a professor of Philosophy at Sabanci University in Istanbul. We have now been invited to write about the same themes after ten years and are in the process of completing the paper. Has the dispute I have had within the Royal Society in dealing with the complaints brought against me produced anything I could use in the paper? No! The dispute has been entirely unproductive of any research in this area and has been a waste of time. My complainants have produced nothing which would be of value for this paper.

    (13) In sum, why resign? The main issue underlying this dispute has to do with freedom of speech in the area of science. It has been long recognized that science best advances when it is open to the critical discussion of any of its doctrines, whether alleged to be indigenous or not. This is something found in the 19th-century discussion of freedom of speech by John Stuart Mill. If anything is given privileged protection from criticism, then this undermines the advance of science. At the moment the dogmatic stance seems to be in the ascendancy for the RS. And it is supported by the acceptance of a Code of Ethics which can be used all too easily to curtail free speech. The remark in the letter that indigenous knowledge is not science has clearly been taken by many within the RS to be an unacceptable claim to make, given the way in which it has been challenged by reprimands and investigations. But this stance should never have been accepted if the Royal Society NZ was a fully “open society”. A resignation can be a sharp reminder that it ought to provide a better forum for the discussion of contentious views instead of condemning them on websites or having panel investigations into them.

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