VUW free speech event shows why government intervention is now necessary

VUW free speech event shows why government intervention is now necessary

A couple of weeks ago now, Victoria University’s long awaited panel event on free speech finally took place. VUW Vice-Chancellor Nic Smith told journalists after the event that new legislation to protect free speech was not necessary in our university sector, and ‘certainly [not] at my university.’ 

To any neutral observer, though, the event will have made clear quite how far our universities have strayed from being the politically disinterested, open institutions we pay them to be, and how urgently government intervention is now needed to make them fit for purpose again.

The first sign of that was the set-up. Smith had originally invited two speakers willing to defend free speech as traditionally conceived: Jonathan Ayling of the Free Speech Union, and my New Zealand Initiative colleague Michael Johnston. 

When a few students said they were ‘freaking out’ over these ‘right-wing voices,’ though, Smith re-organized the event with Ayling, Johnston, and eight other speakers, none of whom would describe themselves as right-of-centre. He also moved the event from VUW’s central, open ‘Hub’ to a closed lecture theatre, apparently in response to VUWSA President Marcail Parkinson’s concerns that students wouldn’t have been able to ‘avoid that area…if they didn’t feel comfortable being around the debate.’

Most of the speakers at the event also seemed worried about the harm speech could cause. Anjum Rahman of the Inclusive Aotearoa Collective stressed that students should feel ‘uncomfortable’ during discussions at universities, but not ‘unsafe,’ which she left tantalizingly undefined. Khylee Quince, the Dean of AUT’s law school, felt sure that some on campus ‘pose a threat to’ the ‘safety and well-being’ of others, though she, too, declined to precisely define these terms. 

Queensland University of Technology’s John Byron also seemed unsure about speech, which, he said, could ‘shut down other people’s speech,’ something that was exemplified at Victoria only a couple months ago, when top US diplomat Bonnie Jenkins was shouted down by protestors. 

Byron, though, didn’t mention that incident, and didn’t seem to be confining his remarks to the kind of heckling that literally prevents someone from being heard, and that has long been recognized as falling outside the protection of the First Amendment in the United States. What he had in mind was ‘intimidation’ and ‘humiliation’– two more terms that seemed to cry out for further definition.

Speakers for the most part failed to engage with the evidence that New Zealand universities have a problem with free speech. Several speakers dismissed the Free Speech Union’s 2023 survey of academics for its methodological weaknesses, but failed to mention other surveys without those weaknesses that came to similar conclusions, such as the 2022 FSU survey of academics, the 2022 Heterodox New Zealand survey of undergraduates, and the University of Auckland’s internal survey, all of which showed that substantial numbers of people were fearful of voicing their views. 

Anjum Rahman seemed particularly keen to explore important philosophical questions such as whether incitement to violence could be considered free speech, but didn’t bring up more concrete cases such as Massey’s deplatforming of Don Brash in 2019 or AUT’s deplatforming of Daphna Whitmore in 2022. 

Some speakers did, however, think that academic freedom faced some threats at our universities. University of Auckland Professor Emerita Jane Kelsey said that in her forty-year experience of the university, ‘those who’ve been shut down have not been those [on the right] – it’s been because the donors could potentially be upset, or “We can’t have the Uyghur woman speaking because the Chinese are going to be upset.”’

In the report on academic freedom that I am currently preparing for the New Zealand Initiative, we have found a number of lines of evidence which suggest that over-powerful managers, the idea of universities as businesses, and the Chinese Communist Party do indeed pose a threat to academic freedom in this country. A considerable body of evidence, though, also points to a threat from the left within universities, and this was something that only Victoria University of Wellington’s Nicole Moreham even acknowledged, though she also took clear to qualify this ‘pressure from the left’ on free speech as ‘well-meaning’ and only ‘slightly overzealous.’

Most of the speakers were also keen to dismiss the idea that new legislation was needed to protect academic freedom, either in the form of a requirement that universities have academic freedom policies (mentioned in the coalition agreement), or of a New Zealand equivalent of the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill that has just received royal assent in the UK, which would allow students or academics whose free speech rights have been violated to seek redress through the courts.

For Nicole Moreham, this would undermine universities’ autonomy, though it is not clear how it would have any effect on academics’ freedom over their own research and teaching (other than to protect it against bullying administrators and colleagues). Several speakers seemed to see government intervention on this front as hypocritical, as if everyone calling for the change was a cartoon libertarian, and as if left-wing academics suddenly opposing government intervention couldn’t equally be accused of hypocrisy. After the event, Nic Smith told journalists that there was ‘an inherent irony’ in ‘legislating for free speech,’ but didn’t say whether he would be calling for the repeal of existing legislation for free speech such as the New Zealand Bill of Rights. 

My own experience as a lecturer at VUW over the past decade has long convinced me that the universities cannot be reformed without outside intervention. Those opposing the restoration of free speech and political neutrality within our universities are simply too numerous, too powerful, and too shameless. Nic Smith’s ‘free speech’ event has only confirmed me in this view. 

Author

  • 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

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