Pages tagged "Academic Freedom"

  • Free Speech Union Academic Advisory Council Statement on the Listener Letter

    The Free Speech Union unequivocally supports the free expression of seven distinguished New Zealand academics who recently authored a letter to The Listener, titled, In Defence of Science as well as the free expression of their critics.

    We neither support nor oppose the argument in question, but instead defend the right to express honestly-held views, free of individual or institutional attempts to diminish or suppress them. In this regard the authors and some of their critics differ: 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. We encourage critics to engage in a constructive, evidence-based way, rather than making allegations that seem intended to damage reputations or careers.

    Indeed, one of the defining characteristics of New Zealand universities (under s 268(2)(d)(i)(E) of the Education and Training Act 2020), is that they perform “a role of critic and conscience of society.” This, in turn, requires universities to provide an environment in which academic staff can express ideas without fear of retribution or persecution – where they can question and test received wisdom and to state controversial or unpopular ideas [s 267(4)(a)]. It also creates an expectation that university authorities will tolerate a broad variety of views, and will defend staff from any pressure they may face as a consequence of expressing those views.

    It is, therefore, deeply concerning that among the critics were Professor Dawn Freshwater, the Vice Chancellor of the University of Auckland – where all of the authors of the letter are resident – and the Tertiary Education Union, to which many academics belong. The criticisms levelled by these organisations warrant especial comment.

    In a public statement, Professor Freshwater affirmed the authors' right to express their views, but also implied they 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 that assertion, and by making this a caveat to her affirmation of the authors right to free expression, Professor Freshwater risks impugning their reputations unfairly. 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". A charitable reading of their letter would therefore suggest that the authors agree with Professor Freshwater that mātauranga Māori is valuable.

    It is worth noting that The Science Learning Hub – Pokapū Akoranga Pūtaiao, an integral component of the New Zealand Government’s Science in Society Plan seems to agree with the authors, stating that "Mātauranga Māori is a knowledge base in its own right. It is Māori knowledge, including values and culture. It is different from modern science" (emphasis added).

    Scholars within a university frequently disagree, and the role of university itself is to maintain the ground on which that disagreement can take place, in good faith and in a scholarly fashion. That means that the university, like the FSU, ought to take a neutral stance, to defend unequivocally the right and duty of its academics to make good-faith arguments, and to defend them from unfair attacks on their reputations. Instead, Professor Freshwater’s statement has made it more difficult for academics at her university to voice honestly-hold views on contentious topics in the future.

    Dr Barry Hughes, also at the University of Auckland, wrote a letter on behalf of the TEU to the authors. Like Professor Freshwater, he opened by affirming that the authors are 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”. Dr Hughes went on to accuse the authors of being confused about what science is, of taking it to comprise “a set of indisputable facts about the world” and of “[presuming] that nothing is really known until it is known scientifically”. He concluded by asserting that “[the authors’] letter was damaging without being enlightening”. There is nothing in the letter to The Listener that, to our reading, justifies any of those acerbic accusations. It is outrageous for a representative of an organisation with a duty to protect academic freedom to make such baseless claims, and in such heated terms, in response to an argument put forward in good faith. Like Professor Freshwater’s statement, such a missive can only serve to make academics feel less safe to venture honestly-held views on contentious issues in the future and to render statements affirming free expression as lip-service only. We are not confident that the TEU would wholeheartedly fight for the free speech of members they disagree with should they need to.

    It is lamentable that the Vice Chancellor of the University of Auckland and the TEU have taken such strong stances against the letter to The Listener, rather than encouraging respectful debate. In this context their comments about free expression come across as hollow platitudes. The net effect of the comments will be to chill scholarly debate, not to promote it.

    The Free Speech Union is committed to supporting all academics to freely engage in debate. If you would like to join us at the Free Speech Union, go to

  • FSU Backs Academic Freedom To Call Out Flat-Earthers

    29 July 2021


    FSU Backs Academic Freedom To Call Out Flat-Earthers

    The Free Speech Union is backing a University Lecturer's fight for academic freedom, against University of Waikato attempts to stop him from describing people as "cranks", who claim on religious authority that the earth is flat, and that people lived alongside dinosaurs.

    Dr Raymond Richards who teaches history at the University of Waikato faces potential disciplinary action for his lectures about methods of critical thinking in history.

    A spokesperson for the Union, Stephen Franks says, “When anti-vaxxers are reminding us that the difference between science and superstition may mean life or death for innocent people, freedom for people to call things as they see them is as important as it ever was. When discerning fake news can be vital we should be supporting the teaching of critical analysis in universities. Not shutting it down.”

    Earlier this year, Dr Richards in teaching his course referred by way of example to “religious cranks” who said the earth was flat, the sun smaller than the moon, 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.

    “Universities have a duty, codified in the Education and Training Act 2020, to uphold academic freedom that includes the freedom of academic staff to question and test received wisdom, to put forward new ideas and state controversial opinions.”

    Dr Richards will be delivering the same lecture to this semester’s students on Friday at 10 am, in room S.1.01 at the University of Waikato.

    “The University has let down its students and staff by sending a strong signal that ‘hurt feelings’ will be enough to shut down academic teaching.”

    A copy of the letter sent to the Vice-Chancellor this morning and a lecture outline is available to view at

  • Free Speech Round Up: Mighty Ape | The n-word | JK Rowling coverage

    Thanks for standing with the Free Speech Union and our cause for free speech. Since our launch on Wednesday, hundreds of New Zealanders have joined our new union.

    Why New Zealand needs a Free Speech Union

    Our Spokesman, Dr David Cumin joined Peter Williams on Magic Talk on the launch of the new Free Speech Union and why it's needed. Click here to have a listen.

    Remember that this effort is 100 percent powered by people like you. To join the Free Speech Union click here, or donate here.

    Mighty Ape pulls 'transphobic' books from sale after targeting by online mob

    On Monday the Free Speech Union wrote a public letter to online bookseller Mighty Ape asking its founder to reverse the decision to ban books on transgender issues.

    On Saturday Stuff reported on the new ban:

    Transgender Kiwis have accused retailers Paper Plus and Mighty Ape of selling “transphobic” books, which describe being transgender as a mental illness.

    The books in question are Irreversible Damage: The Transgender Craze Seducing our Daughters by Abigail Shrier and When Harry Became Sally: Responding to the Transgender Moment by Ryan T. Anderson.

    Both books examine the notion of rapid-onset gender dysphoria (ROGD), a term coined by an American professor in 2016 to describe an alleged epidemic of youth coming out as trans due to social contagion and mental illness.

    Cerian Rees was one of a number of people who sent emails to Paper Plus and Mighty Ape expressing concern over the books.

    Rees said the books spread lies and misinformation about transgender people, and could be used to justify bigotry or harassment towards the community.

    “One of the main lies pushed is the notion of ‘rapid onset dysphoria’, which is made up pseudoscience that anti-trans lobbies use to attack vulnerable youth.

    “I would hate to be a trans kid who came across these books on a shelf, or even worse, my parents buying one and letting it guide them on how to treat me,” Rees said. […]

    Waikato University psychology lecturer Dr Jaimie Veale said books like those promoted fear and hatred of transgender people.

    “This puts us at serious risk of worsening this stigma, discrimination, and violence. I haven’t read these books, but I can see with a title like ‘the transgender craze seducing our daughters’ that this sort of work is clearly designed to promote fear, hatred, and extremist anti-transgender views, at an already marginalised group,” Veale said.

    “I’m also aware that there are publications similar to these that promote potentially harmful conspiracy theories about trans people being a product of the medical community.”

    A spokesman for OutLine, a rainbow mental health organisation, said it was “disappointing” to see books like this advertised for sale. […]

    Mighty Ape said books on its site were automatically imported from Nielsen’s BookData database, which compiled books that had been published publicly.

    “While we do try to monitor this as much as we can, due to the sheer volume of books published each year, some material we would not typically be comfortable selling can slip through the cracks,” it said in a statement.

    “I have notified our books product manager, and both books have now been removed from our website. I sincerely apologise for any hurt or disappointment this may have caused.”

    At the time of publication, both books had been pulled from Mighty Ape.

    Mighty Ape's decision shows contempt towards New Zealanders and our ability to arrive at informed opinions.

    The point of non-fiction is to have an exchange of ideas that can extend our knowledge. The avenue for criticism should not be ignorant calls to ban but thought-provoking reviews and counterarguments. The right to examine ideas and critique them is the bedrock of an open, diverse, and tolerant society.

    Allowing veto by threat over which books we may be permitted to read is not acceptable, and is what one expects of an authoritarian anti-democratic regime, not from a major bookseller.

    As for the Waikato University lecturer quoted in support of the ban, she is literally judging a book by its cover. For an academic to claim a text ‘promotes fear and hatred of transgender people’ when she hasn’t even read the text, is pathetic.

    The full text of our public letter is available on our website.

    If our would-be censors can send emails of complaint, so can we!

    If you agree that booksellers shouldn't give in to the online mob, feel free to also send a note to Mighty Ape's founder by email.

    >> click here for a customisable template <<

    Should universities be scared of the N-word?

    A University of Waikato professor has apologised after saying the n-word during a lecture, as part of a discussion about the reclamation of offensive terms.

    According to the NZ Herald:

    The University of Waikato professor was teaching a lecture on representation and reclaiming terms when she said the racial slur out loud.

    The teacher says she believed some students might not know what word was being referred to unless it was uttered in full. She later apologised to two students who complained, as well as to the class.

    One of the students, who spoke to the Herald, said while she believed the apology to be sincere she was shocked anyone felt comfortable uttering the n-word in 2021, regardless of context.

    That student - who is Fijian - had been called the slur many times in her life, but had realised that despite her own skin colour she should not use the term "because I am not ancestrally linked to slavery in the Americas or the Caribbean".

    "It did offend me that she thought it was okay to say it, especially her being a white woman." […]

    The Fijian student and another student complained and the professor apologised to both individually. She also posted an apology to an online student forum.

    "I am deeply sorry for any hurt this may have caused. I had not wanted to assume that everyone in the class understood the term and so attempted to provide context but in retrospect, I realise I did this very poorly.

    "In trying to get the point across that it absolutely does matter 'who' uses 'reclaimed terms', I inadvertently deeply offended some. Again, please accept my most sincere apology."

    But he acknowledged the context in which the incident took place – a university lecture room, where robust debate was encouraged.

    Last year, Auckland's Lynfield College said it would censor racial slurs from teaching materials, after a student filmed a teacher using the n-word while reading a passage from a book.

    The school told teachers they should no longer say a word that represented "condensed generations of pain".

    This is getting ridiculous. We are sorry students might be offended, but no words should be off-limits for discussion at a university. Context is everything and there’s absolutely no sign of bad faith here. Academics should not be forced to apologise because students find a topic offensive. If so, our universities are doomed.

    Credit where credit is due, even Race Relations Commissioner Meng Foon now acknowledges context is important. In this instance, he refused to criticise the academic. Good.

    Wairarapa's JK Rowling ban getting international coverage (for all the wrong reasons)

    You’ll recall a few weeks ago we told you about the Harry Potter quiz being cancelled at a Wairarapa book festival, which was set to examine modern “cancel culture”, because of JK Rowling’s views on transgender issues.

    We told our friends at the UK Free Speech Union, who gave the story to the Times of London (subscription required).

    A literary festival in New Zealand has cancelled plans for a Harry Potter-themed event because of JK Rowling’s comments on gender issues.

    Peter Biggs, chairman of the Wairarapa book festival, reportedly decided to drop the annual children’s quiz after consultations with the LGBTQ community.

    Seven Harry Potter novels and a multibillion-pound film franchise helped make Rowling, 55, the most famous author in the world, but she has faced stern criticism since expressing her views on whether men who identify as women are the same as biological females. […]

    Toby Young, the founder of the Free Speech Union, which is due to open its first branch in New Zealand next week, said: “JK Rowling is one of Britain’s most influential and respectable contemporary writers.

    “This is why the decision by the Wairarapa book festival to cancel a children’s Harry Potter quiz because of comments JK Rowling made during an important debate on women’s-only spaces is chilling.

    “If the creator of our most successful export since James Bond can be declared persona non grata, anyone can.”

    Speaking of the UK group, a couple of items from their last update caught our eye as being just as relevant to New Zealand:

    Political speech should never be compelled

    Freedom to speak your mind is essential in a democracy, but free speech also means “the right not to be legally forced to engage in political speech”, arguesSpencer Case in Arc Digital. In universities, corporations and organisations of all types, people now feel compelled to sign petitions they don’t agree with, and, in some cases, sign loyalty oaths that are far more draconian than the ones people were forced to sign during the McCarthy era.

    The roots of cancel culture

    Historian Tom Holland argues that Christian ideals remain at the heart of modern culture war battles, while journalist Malcolm Gladwell says a failure to understand and offer forgiveness is at the heart of modern cancel culture: “Cancel culture is what happens when you have a generation of people who are not raised with a Christian ethic of forgiveness.” Christopher Schelin compares the phenomenon to “old-fashioned church discipline”. It’s certainly not new, writes Raymond Keene in the Article, comparing modern woke witch-hunts to purges carried out by the Romans and ancient Chinese.

    Wherever it comes from, cancel culture sucks, says Suzanne Harrington in the Irish Examiner. Musician Glenn Danzig warns that it will stop another “punk explosion”. He told NME, “There won’t be any new bands coming out like that. Now, they will immediately get cancelled.”

    Free Speech Union's submission on the Contraception, Sterilisation and Abortion (Safe Areas) Amendment Bill

    Finally in this update, last week we submitted on the Contraception, Sterilisation and Abortion (Safe Areas) Amendment Bill. If passed, the Bill would create a 150-metre perimeter outside healthcare services, in which no one could intimidate, interfere with or obstruct a person entering the clinic. You can read the transcript of the presentation I gave to the select committee here.

    Thank you for your support.

  • Opinion: Another VC on Free Speech

    Here is a good analysis written by the Free Speech Coalition's own David Farrar on Stuart McCutcheon's comments on the principles of free speech in the university environment in New Zealand.  


    By David Farrar

    Auckland VC  writes:

    New Zealand is rare in having academic freedom and university autonomy enshrined in legislation. Part of our role as leaders of the universities is to protect those values, which are fundamental to  in a democratic society. And, as the leaders of the largest research institutions in the country, we can encourage debate that is informed by facts rather than unsubstantiated opinion.

    However, the right to free speech is not absolute. Speakers may not, for example, defame others, nor incite violence, nor engage in activities that breach Human Rights legislation. Similarly, the Education Act provides for academic freedom, but only “within the law”.

    I agree that some of the limits on free speech are defamation, not inciting violence and not breaching the law. I also note Don Brash has done none of these things, or come close to it. His advocacy against race based seats is advocating one one side of a current political issue.

    Even where a speaker is operating within the law, we are seeing increasing claims from some groups that a university has a duty to protect them from what they regard as “hate speech” (which it may not be in a legal sense). As institutions that seek to create opportunities for members of under-represented groups, we certainly work to provide environments in which they can flourish, succeed and be safe. However, the view by some that any speech they deem offensive or threatening should be prohibited from campus would essentially eliminate most debate from the university environment.

    Good to see McCutcheon conclude that you can’t allow groups to censor speech they find upsetting as it would eliminate much debate on campus. I would go further and suggest that if staff at a university can’t handle people saying things they dislike, they are in the wrong job.

    From the perspective of university leaders, it is almost impossible to reconcile the rights of those who demand “free speech” (particularly at the more extreme ends of any issue) with the rights of those who demand to be protected from what they see as prejudice and a cause of mental distress.

    You don’t reconcile them. You follow the law set out in The Education Act.

    Finally, and most relevant in the Massey case, vice-chancellors as chief executives of the universities have an obligation to the health, safety and wellbeing of staff, students, visitors and any other person on campus. The challenge here, of course, is in assessing the credibility of threats to particular events.

    Thomas has been criticised for cancelling an event because she believed there was a significant risk of harm to participants. 

    No she has been criticised for cancelling it because she didn’t like what Don Brash says, and labelled it close to hate speech. The security concerns were a transparent ruse, as evidenced by the fact she didn’t even talk to the Police before cancelling.

    If Thomas had not spent most of her press release blaming Brash and labelling his advocacy against race based seats as close to hate speech, then one might believe her concern was purely security. But it is obvious it was the content of what Brash might say that concerned her, not a couple of posts on Facebook.

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