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.co.nz.