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. 

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  • Barry Livermore
    followed this page 2024-07-03 21:04:36 +1200
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    published this page in Blog 2024-07-02 17:20:02 +1200

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