What happens if we don't defend free speech at universities?

'Academic freedom' seems like a pretty abstract value for the lucky few who live in an 'ivory tower'. But the right for experts to speak freely is crucial. 

If those at our universities don't have free speech, how does knowledge develop?

How is innovation possible if ideas cannot be tested?

How do we progress as a society if we become so uncomfortable with dissenting ideas that it stops us from speaking about them altogether? 

These are major questions we're considering right now. We're preparing for a tour on academic freedom, and as we do, we're realising again and again why this matters so much as we face yet more examples of academic freedom under threat. 

If we don't fight for academic freedom, who will? 

Attacks against free speech at Vic Uni; but opportunities to counter, too

Last week, we were sent draft principles for what discourse Victoria University intends to allow on campus.

Granted, there are some good parts, like the acknowledgment that academics should feel able to fulfill their role as a critic and conscience of society and should be open to changing their minds. (Fundamental stuff to the role of the university, but unfortunately we know many academics across the nation don't believe they have this freedom.)

But mostly, these principles were deeply concerning.

Here's an example:

"We should not provide a platform for, nor invite, individuals or groups to speak on campus that have previously demonstrated or are expected to express hate speech as the current law defines..."

Likely to express hate speech?

No one in New Zealand has ever faced a criminal prosecution under our current hate speech laws. So really, what this would amount to would be academics claiming a particular perspective is 'hate speech', accusing a speaker before they've opened their mouth.

It's yet another speech code that will be used, when it suits the university, to avoid unpopular opinions.

They go on to say they will not provide a platform for those whose views differ from the university's values, and they'll only give speakers platforms based on "their history of being able to follow the guiding principles".

While not only prescriptive, this is also contradictory, isn't it? When their values include being open to others' opinions?

If they're really committed to "the pursuit of knowledge" and "acknowledging we are all part of an ongoing discussion and are prepared to listen respectfully and to be open to changing our minds", then they need to wake their ideas up. 

It's just as well the Free Speech Union can be part of the conversation. 

Next week I'm speaking on a prominent panel at Victoria University, which the Vice-Chancellor is hosting.

We will discuss the necessity of free speech for academic freedom, and the university's role in contributing evidence and critical thinking to debates. I'll be aiming to put a strong case forward!

Next generation of lawyers refuse to debate 'free speech moot' 

The opportunity to sit on a panel to discuss free speech hasn't come too soon. 

The ability to debate is a dying art.

So, we were thrilled when the AUT Mooting Society asked us to sponsor a moot on free speech. It's a chance to see free speech in action in an academic context.

Ten teams were lined up to participate. That's dozens of our future lawyers cutting their teeth on why law that defends free speech is so important.

But, last week we found out all six teams from the University of Auckland have pulled out.

Why? Because we're sponsoring it, and they need to be seen as politically neutral. (Which I suggest probably means they are anything but politically neutral...)

Since when was standing for everyone's right to speak their mind, regardless of the content, biased?

Can they see the irony of pulling out of a moot on free speech because of our association with it?

It's a debate!

If the next generation views free speech itself as biased, what does that mean for our future?

This is the very reason why we have to continue work to create a new generation of free speech champions.

I, for one, wasn't willing to let this derail an important event. We're pushing ahead, and have made sure dozens can still engage with these crucial issues. Free speech will be demonstrated and debated.
Mooters will argue a case about the cancellation of an event at a public venue and grapple with the tension between free speech, health and safety, and the ‘heckler’s veto.’

Our next tour: Jonathan Rauch on academic freedom

So often our role involves putting out fires and holding people to account. But we're also proud to shift culture by prompting conversation.

Our next international guest is a leading voice in academic freedom all the way from Washington DC. Author and journalist Jonathan Rauch will tour with us next month visiting universities, meeting with vice-chancellors, and speaking at our public events on the importance of academic freedom. 

Rauch is the author of eight books including The Constitution of Knowledge and Kindly Inquisitors - two books our team often refers to which defend free speech, science, and robust criticism.

Rauch is well-versed in discussing how to address disinformation and cancel culture and brings an important perspective to New Zealand. 

During Rauch's visit, you'll see interviews with dozens of journalists and media, and have the chance to attend public events in Auckland or Christchurch, or if you're an academic, to the symposium we're hosting with the New Zealand Initiative in Wellington

Reserve your place at an event here.

Universities should be places where ideas and theories are freely debated and tested, but we’re continually seeing that this is not the case.

We're working to be the change we want to see. 


It's easy to take free speech for granted until it's not there. But together, we can keep up the fight.


Jonathan Ayling
Chief Executive
Free Speech Union

PS. RSVP now to hear prominent free speech advocate Jonathan Rauch speak in Auckland or Christchurch, or in Wellington if you're involved in academia. 

Showing 1 reaction

Please check your e-mail for a link to activate your account.
  • Nadia Braddon-Parsons
    published this page in Blog 2024-04-23 15:07:56 +1200

You might also like: