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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  • Nadia Braddon-Parsons
    published this page in Blog 2024-04-30 16:21:58 +1200
  • Nadia Braddon-Parsons
    published this page in Blog 2024-04-30 16:21:57 +1200

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