The problem with the vice-chancellor’s ‘free speech’ column

The problem with the vice-chancellor’s ‘free speech’ column

On February 23rd, Victoria University of Wellington Vice-Chancellor Nic Smith published an article in Stuff (later reposted on the university’s website) under the headline ‘The problem with the government’s proposed “free speech” law for universities.’ A response by Jonathan Ayling, the Chief Executive of the Free Speech Union, appeared on Stuff the 27th under the headline ‘Deciding who gets free speech at our universities.’ We too wrote a reply on February 26th and offered it to Stuff soon afterwards, but they didn’t reply, perhaps because they had already posted a response to Smith’s article. We also offered it to Martyn Bradbury, who previously published an article on free speech by us on the Daily Blog, but received no word from him either. Finally we offered it to David Farrar, who posted it on his KiwiBlog on March 14th. Since Farrar frequently updates his site, meaning that older articles are pushed down the timeline, we thought it would be a good idea to re-post our piece here as well. We hope that it will feed into the panel discussion on free speech that Smith has organized at VUW on April 29th, at which Johnston and Ayling will speak. (Kierstead’s requests to speak on the panel and to submit a pre-recorded presentation in the manner of a few of the other participants were both declined by the university.)

This is our reply to Nic Smith:

In a column that appeared in The Post on 23 February, Victoria University of Wellington Vice-Chancellor Nic Smith criticizes the coalition’s commitment to have universities adopt a free speech policy.  

Smith notes that ACT Party leader David Seymour ‘has previously criticised universities for declining to host certain speakers and argued the institutions should lose funding if they don’t “protect free speech.”’ The vice-chancellor then states that ‘one inference of all this is that anyone who wants to speak on campus should be able to do so.’  

But it wouldn’t actually be valid to infer from Seymour’s criticisms of recent deplatformings at New Zealand universities that he thinks that ‘anyone who wants to speak on campus should be able to do so.’  

‘random people can’t simply turn up at a university without an invitation and expect to get a hearing’

You can, of course, think that Vice-Chancellor Jan Thomas was wrong to prevent Don Brash from speaking to a student politics club in August 2018 (for example) and at the same time recognize that random people can’t simply turn up at a university without an invitation and expect to get a hearing.

Smith has set up a classic straw man. Unfortunately for him, it’s a straw man that he addresses the rest of his column to. ‘While it may seem antithetical to some,’ he declares, ‘I do not agree that universities platforming all-comers will help.’ But it’s not clear who exactly has been proposing this.

The vice-chancellor goes on, though, warning that ‘an all-comers approach will actually reduce our capacity to expose relevant truths and understand the world in new ways,’ and that ‘everybody having a platform will diminish our capacity for people to talk respectfully together about difficult topics and discuss conflicting ideas.’

It might well be the case that allowing absolutely anyone to speak on campus would make debating ideas on campus more difficult – even if the vice-chancellor doesn’t advance any actual arguments for that proposition.  

But again, we haven’t heard anyone insisting on an ‘all-comers approach’ to academic freedom in this country over the past few years.

What we are aware of is anger over episodes such as the de-platforming of Brash, the cancellation of the Feminism 2020 event (also at Massey), and the deplatforming of gender-critical feminist Daphna Whitmore at Auckland University of Technology (AUT) in 2022.  

‘[the problem is] with people with widely held views being prevented from debating certain issues’

Smith doesn’t mention any of these cases though. Perhaps that’s because they make clear that the problem we have isn’t with ‘all-comers’ making debate on campus impossible. It’s with people with widely held views being prevented from debating certain issues.  

It is true, of course, that certain types of speech aren’t usually covered even by the strongest free speech laws. In US First Amendment law, for example, drowning out a speaker with heckling is usually considered a violation of the speaker’s rights.

So have the likes of Brash and gender-critical feminists been drowning out speakers at our universities with heckling?  If so, Smith might have some evidence for his fears about on-campus debate being limited by invited speakers.  

In fact, of course, it is the likes of Brash who tend to be heckled. When the former National Party leader was eventually allowed to speak at the University of Auckland in September 2018, NewsHub reported that the event ‘was marred by ugly scenes…with protesters immediately heckling him over a megaphone as he attempted to take part in the debate.’

When British gender-critical women’s activist Kellie-Jay Keen-Minshull tried to speak in Auckland last year, she was surrounded by a crowd that jeered and shoved her, had tomato juice poured on her head, and eventually had to escape from the area with a police escort. That event wasn’t on a university campus, but it’s hard to imagine things would have gone differently if it had been.

And when seven Auckland academics sent a letter to The Listener magazine in 2021 politely expressing doubts about inserting mātauranga Māori in the science curriculum, two faced an investigation by the Royal Society, one was forced to resign from his administrative position, and another was temporarily removed from teaching.

It should come as no surprise that when Heterodox New Zealand (a group of dissident academics) and the Free Speech Union have conducted surveys of undergraduates and academics over the past couple of years, they found that substantial numbers of responding academics didn’t feel comfortable discussing hot-button topics like the Treaty of Waitangi and gender.  

Why doesn’t Smith address any of this? It probably isn’t because Smith (who made his academic reputation making computer models of the heart) simply doesn’t understand the issues. Could it be that the vice-chancellor, like a lot of people at universities these days, feels intimidated?

You might think that the vice-chancellor, who was paid $368,750 by the taxpayer-funded institution last year, should simply bite the bullet and risk offending a small number of bolshie students and staff. The Education Act does, after all, require universities to uphold academic freedom, and Smith is effectively Vic’s CEO. That even Smith doesn’t dare address the real problem speaks volumes about the situation that our universities now find themselves in.

It also speaks to the need for the kind of legislation that the coalition aims to introduce – and, in fact, for more robust measures as well.

Universities in English-speaking countries are becoming more like religious organizations than the secular, liberal engines of research and learning that we take them (and pay them) to be.

 Just as in medieval universities, plenty of good work gets done, and most university workers aren’t particularly zealous. But there are limits on what you can and can’t discuss, and over time this has significantly distorted the university’s core purpose.

If this government stops at simply asking universities to commit to a free speech policy and leaves them to police themselves, managers like Smith will simply carry on posing as defenders of free speech while caving in to zealots at every turn. With few left on campus who are willing to oppose the zealots, why wouldn’t the managers act in this way?

What we need, in addition, is an academic freedom bill of the sort that has been successfully introduced in the UK. This enables staff and students whose rights have been breached to seek legal redress. It also sets up a ‘free speech czar’ (currently Dr. Arif Ahmed) who can make sure that universities are doing the job that they are paid to do – providing a genuinely open space for learning and investigation.

Cover photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash

Authors

  • James Kierstead

    James Kierstead is a Research Fellow at the New Zealand Initiative and former Senior Lecturer in Classics at Victoria University of Wellington. Together with Michael Johnston he co-hosts Free Kiwis!, a podcast dedicated to issues to do with freedom and free speech in a New Zealand context. He tweets @Kleisthenes2

  • Michael Johnston

    Dr Michael Johnston is a Senior Fellow at the New Zealand Initiative. Dr Johnston held academic positions at Victoria University of Wellington from 2011-2022 and was the Associate Dean (Academic) in the University’s Faculty of Education from 2020 to 2022. Prior to his time at Victoria, he was the Senior Statistician at the New Zealand Qualifications Authority. Dr Johnston holds a PhD in Cognitive Psychology from the University of Melbourne.

James Kierstead

James Kierstead

James Kierstead is a Research Fellow at the New Zealand Initiative and former Senior Lecturer in Classics at Victoria University of Wellington. Together with Michael Johnston he co-hosts Free Kiwis!, a podcast dedicated to issues to do with freedom and free speech in a New Zealand context. He tweets @Kleisthenes2