Pages tagged "Victoria University"

  • This OIA response reveals the true state of free speech in universities

    This is a long letter, but an important one.

    The key point is to unpack new revelations that expose the depth of bigotry and opposition to free speech in our universities. I am writing to ask you to sign our public letter to senior Ministers calling on them to bring universities to heel, and stop their illiberal activism. 


    A famous propagandist once said 'Accuse your enemies of that which you are guilty'. That is exactly what our would-be-censors do today. 

    And there is a curious (and deeply troubling) number of censors at our universities: Here are three skirmishes we're currently leading at three universities. 

    1. Victoria University: Bigotry leads the way to silence speech

    Remember the 'free speech panel discussion' that was supposed to be held in April but was postponed until May due to 'difficulty with scheduling'? We can now piece together what really happened – and it's made me more worried for our universities than ever before. 

    I have just finished working through an almost 600-page OIA request that was released to me by Victoria University; all material on the decision to postpone the Victoria University panel on free speech, much of it decrying me as a 'racist' 'far-right zealot'.

    I like to believe the best in people. I often assume differences with our opponents are questions of emphasis and miscommunication, that they're really working in good faith. 

    Unfortunately, that's clearly not the case here. 

    As publicised, when the University announced that I would sit on the panel (alongside Dr. Michael Johnston, a Senior Fellow at the New Zealand Initiative and FSU member), staff and students at the university 'freaked out'. 

    Early on, opponents claimed that "you have two free speech absolutists but no advocates for hate speech laws. Mr. Ayling in particular is a far right-wing zealot."

    While this may disappoint some of you, I'm not a free speech "absolutist"

    The OIA showed an invitation was sent to a Māori academic to also sit on the panel. They replied:

    "Thanks for this invitation. However, there is no way I would ever agree to be part of a panel that includes Michael Johnston and Jonathan Ayling. Both of them are racist and do not engage in good faith discussion.

    I consider this panel discussion to be a terrible idea which will result in real harm to Māori staff and students. By inviting Johnston and Ayling to be part of this panel, the VC has virtually ensured that no Maori will participate.

    It sends a clear message that pandering to those who support hate speech is more important to the VC than including Māori voices."

    There's incredible and perverse irony in this statement. Did you pick up on it?

    In the last sentence, the academic is insisting this is simply a zero-sum game: the VC is not including Māori voices, because he is including me...! 🤔 

    Also, there were Māori voices willing to sit alongside me: David Seymour, for one! We hadn't realised until I reviewed this material, but he was invited to participate in the debate, and had accepted. In the end, he simply couldn't make it because of a clash with Cabinet meeting. 

    But it shows there were Māori willing to participate in the discussion - just not the 'right' kind of Māori, clearly. It is still unclear how this amounted to "real harm to Māori."

    The VC himself then began to look for options to exclude me from the panel, even inviting academics to send him reasons to kick me off! He said: 

    "We have been working hard to include Māori representation... any examples you can send me of racism from Michael Johnston and Jonathan Ayling would be valuable so there are increased opportunities to hold them to account." 

    You will note that no one was able to send him anything... because these are lies to discredit us, not by challenging our ideas, but by sheer ad hominem attacks. 

    The VC goes on to illustrate the very reason why we had concerns about Victoria University's Draft Guiding Principles for Critic and Conscience Public Discourse Conversations. He said the following clause "disqualifies Ayling". It reads: 

    As we've said before, while everyone should work to promote good-faith debate, empowering one side to decide when the other side is being 'hateful' is not a solution. You can see this clause was simply going to be used to deal with a nuisance (yours truly).

    I had hoped that they were actually standing on principle by keeping me as a participant. But, unfortunately, it's very clear that they would have gotten rid of me quick-smart from the panel if they thought they could get away with it.

    Why? Because they knew that for whatever headache they had with academics clutching at their pearls over a 'free speech advocate' speaking in their midst, it would be nothing in comparison to the response they would provoke from us - and you - if they really showed their cards, and kicked me out.

    Ultimately, it seems that it was the Māori Studies School that had the panel on free speech replaced with what ended up being a lecture on identity politics.

    As below, the school signed a letter to the VC claiming that Dr Johnston and I "hold fixed racist views on 'freedom of speech'. This is unlikely to enable a compassionate conversation and will unlock and embolden previously quest racist or bigoted views." 

    Again, what are the "fixed racist views on 'freedom of speech'" that I hold?

    Is it simply that I believe all Kiwis should be free to express their views, even if those views are racist because it is far better to know who the bigoted are in our community than it is to suppress them? 

    As a result of this OIA, we now know who some more of the bigots in our universities are. 

    There were two items of correspondence to the VC that amused me. One academic claimed, while arguing I should be removed, that:

    "There's literature on how normalising alt-right perspectives within reasoned debate spaces is counterproductive and just expands their base... Essentially the right presents a very simplistic free-speech line which is hard to reason against... it's always a losing battle in a debate space."

    Essentially, 'when we put forward our reasoning and theirs, they win, but we know we're right'...!!!

    The other was a letter to the VC following this issue receiving coverage on several radio stations, with a talk-back caller putting in their perspective. The individual was very supportive of the VC, but annoyed that: 

    "Ayling said the Union does not support specific positions (the Union came from all persuasions); it only supports the right for them to be expressed. His interview was followed by the talk back host and regular guests on her programme applauding his stand and criticising the university. In short, the university suffered a PR blow and I felt embarrassed."

    That sums this all up. We face some major opponents and opposition in our universities, but everyday Kiwis (who pay these academics' salaries) see through their nonsense. 

    Let's go right back to the beginning. This whole issue started when I responded in an op-ed in The Post to the VC of Victoria when he complained about the Government's plan to require universities to respect free speech, or face funding cuts.

    No one could have made a better case for that than the very academics who are so enraged by the policy.

    This has been an ultimate own goal by the university.

    When all's said and done, if you're outraged as we were by the duplicitous and censorial conduct of the university, join us in signing our public letter now. 

    2. Massey University's censorial discussion paper

    Victoria University isn't the only one with a free speech problem.

    Massey University recently released its Curriculum Transformation Discussion Paper created with the goal of achieving "a clear, cohesive and shared approach to Massey’s curriculum design".

    We've had a read and have two main concerns which we've sent to Jan Thomas, the Vice Chancellor.

    Rather than entrusting academics to set the content, assessment, and delivery for their papers, decisions would rest with a qualification committee. 

    We believe this does not line up with Section 267 of the Education and Training Act 2020 that states that academic freedom, in relation to an institution means 'the freedom of the institution and its staff to regulate the subject matter of courses taught at the institution' and 'the freedom of the institution and its staff to teach and assess students in the manner that they consider best promotes learning'. 

    Interestingly, recently this piece was also published on Massey's website, written, by Professor Giselle Byrnes who put the discussion policy together.

    "The role of the university itself in this is clear. It is to facilitate a safe environment for staff and students to express their academic freedom; it is not for the institution to make a specific statement or adopt a singular position on any particular issue."

    It appears she understands, after all, that it's up to academics (not 'the university' or a committee) to take particular stances. So why take power out of the academics' hands?

    Remember, the Discussion Paper reflects the University’s positions on The Treaty of Waitangi and de/colonisation. But, seeing as there is no consensus on the meaning of the Treaty, how its principles should be interpreted, or the 'correct' approach to ‘decolonisation’, these are simply ideological hoops that academics must jump through. 

    3. University of Auckland's policy: Free speech when it suits them

    Speaking of ideological hoops, we recently told you about our concerns over the University of Auckland's drafted free speech policy has similar restrictions. Here's the feedback we submitted to them. I want to share our submission with you. 

    The points are ones that we've mentioned before and you can read them in full here. But the thing I want to draw your attention to the authoritarian nature of it. "Free speech, but...". 

    It's not a 'free speech' policy when it gives the veto power to 'the University' and its 'policies'; free speech is allowing everyone to have their say, no matter their perspective. 

    As our Education Partnership Manager, Nick Hanne recently said, "...the draft policy describes the University as being the “critic” and “conscience” of society, but instead, it should be academics with this role. Universities should strive for institutional neutrality where diversity of thought can occur within its community allowing academics to take their own stance on issues." Read more from Nick here

    These are three of our key universities in New Zealand  displaying an abysmal attitude towards free speech.

    You'll know we had Toby Young, founder and director of the FSU UK, here with us over the past couple of weeks. What he said in an interview sums it up:

    "Without academic freedom, we're not going to advance the frontiers of knowledge. If people are inhibited about publicising findings that they believe to be scientifically true because they're worried they might get into trouble for doing so, then that's going to retard the evolution and development of knowledge."

    Academic freedom is well worth the fight. 

    But who'll call universities out if we don't? We're in a situation that's, unfortunately, beyond a few letters to Vice-Chancellors. We believe it's time the Government stepped in - not to participate in the contest of ideas itself, but to ensure that no one is excluded simply because of the beliefs they hold. 

    Call on our Ministers to take action and restore academic freedom in New Zealand.

    It's only by your backing that we can keep up this fight, and we can't see it going away any time soon. But if it weren't for the work you're enabling us to do right now, I hate to think where we'd be.  


    Jonathan Ayling
    Chief Executive
    Free Speech Union

    PS. Join us in calling on the Government to step in and rescue academic freedom before it's too late. 

  • "Free speech but..."

    By Nick Hanne

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Nick Hanne
    Education Partnership Manager
    Free Speech Union

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

  • Feedback on ‘The role of Universities in supporting freedom of speech’ event

  • Free Speech Union to hold panel discussion on free speech if Victoria University doesn’t



    30 April 2024


    Free Speech Union to hold panel discussion on free speech if Victoria University doesn’t 

    The Free Speech Union has written to the Council of Victoria University to advise them that they will hold the postponed panel discussion on free speech if the university doesn’t, says Jonathan Ayling, Chief Executive of the Free Speech Union. 

    “As a registered trade union, we intend to use our union status to meet on employer’s premises and to hold a union meeting. We'll host a panel discussion on free speech at Victoria University if they don’t follow through with their promise to host the event they postponed within a month.

    “We applaud the university for seeking out panelists with varying viewpoints to ensure a diversity of opinions is platformed at the event. But we warn them that the tactic of those opposed to free speech is to avoid conversations altogether and to silence critics. 

    “By pandering to student and staff concerns that the conversation on free speech will make some people feel “unsafe”, they’ve sent the message that it’s okay to stifle opinions they don’t like. This is the antithesis of how debate should occur at a university.

    “600 people were registered to attend the original event. There’s a hunger to dig deeper into the topic of free speech. But Victoria University has put itself between a rock and a hard place. 

    “If there was ever a time to discuss the necessity of academic freedom and free speech on our campuses, it’s now. We’re ensuring it happens.”


    Note to editor: Please find our letter to Victoria University here.

  • Union to hold panel discussion on free speech if University won’t

  • What's the point of a university without free speech?

    What a couple of days it's been!

    As you've probably seen, there's a major fight going on right now for free speech at our universities (specifically Victoria).

    Good thing we have a speaking tour specifically on academic freedom coming up in two weeks!

    This is what I told Heather Du Plessis Allan from Newstalk yesterday (and RNZ, and The Postand Sean Plunket, and Michael Johnson, and Andrew Urquhart) when students claimed that the fact we defend individuals who express "hate speech" means we would make them "unsafe":

    If students (and staff, for that matter), can't deal with someone speaking out in favour of free speech, reason, and the need for competing ideas to be freely expressed, then... they shouldn't be at university! 

    Victoria University, at this very moment, is the scene of a critical test for free speech in NZ, and I'm worried what happens if it doesn't go our way. 

    As a publicly funded institution with its proud history of academic excellence, the case before us has dire implications for young people throughout the country. 

    Our future leaders – political, corporate, professional - are shaped profoundly by their university experience. We want them to emerge educated and empowered to think for themselves, able to freely express their opinions and, just as vitally, be ready to listen to others with whom they may disagree.

    Help me think this through; what happens if this is the new normal?

    Perish the thought; this is what we're doing to make sure that doesn't happen. We have to act now.  

    We've written to the University Council, noting that they are not meeting their legal obligations. We know that many academics do not feel free to voice their expert opinions- and that's one of the defining features of academic freedom. We told them: 

    Whether intentionally or not, the Vice-Chancellor has confirmed to your students and staff that they are entitled to stifle views they disagree with; and simply, this is wrong. It is antithetical to the necessity of debate and difference at universities.

    As a publicly funded tertiary institution, it is your duty to uphold and promote free speech and the necessity of deliberation and debate. It is paradoxical and ironic that this conversation about how to have conversations has been deferred. The University’s actions here have shown it is only reinforcing prejudices, not fulfilling its purpose.

    We've told them that if they don't follow through with a panel, we'll hold our own. As a registered union, we have a right to hold meetings on employment premises. We need to see leadership step up and ensure this event goes ahead (with us included), or we'll do it ourselves.  

    Most importantly, we've decided to launch a specific membership with the Free Speech Union for academics.

    The Inter-University Council on Academic Freedom, chaired by Prof. Paul Moon from Auckland University of Technology, and Prof. Elizabeth Rata from the University of Auckland, will be a branch of the Free Speech Union for academics, so we can take the fight for free speech into the academy.

    It's time that academics and students who believe in free speech had a banner to organise under so they can get to work and stand up for this crucial freedom. We're going to make that possible.  

    Each of these actions takes work for our talented (but small) team, and it takes money. To just do the last item, we need to launch a new website, set up a system to provide academics with a profession-specific membership, and engage with the profession of more than 20,000 academics. We're talking tens of thousands of dollars. 

    The fight for free speech in our universities will not be won without Kiwis partnering with us to ensure we have enough money to keep the lights on! 

    This whole saga needs to be a wake up call. If debates on free speech can’t occur at universities, where else should we expect them to take place?

    A society that abandons free speech is necessarily condemned to be less equal, less free, and more violent.

    Now is the time for each of us to take action and stand up for free speech.


    Jonathan Ayling
    Chief Executive
    Free Speech Union

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