Massey VC kills off free speech on campus

I blogged last month on an op ed by the Massey Vice-Chancellor, Jan Thomas, which caused me concern over her views on free speech. She backed the decision of Phil Goff to decide who can speak at an Auckland Council venue, and said that some of the Hobson’s Pledge campaign against special race based wards on local government comes dangerously close to hate speech.

She even went on to talk about free speech being a tool of colonialism that must be restricted.

We were right to be concerned. She has unilaterally banned Don Brash from speaking on the Massey campus. It is an appalling decision from a Vice-Chancellor as the Education Act states:

academic freedom, in relation to an institution, means the freedom of academic staff and students, within the law, to question and test received wisdom, to put forward new ideas and to state controversial or unpopular opinions

Her rationale for banning Brash is disingenuous:

The members later approached University management concerned about their ability to meet the agreement’s terms around security after becoming aware of social media posts suggesting the event could lead to violence.

The University considered providing additional security for the event, but decided the risk of harm to students, staff and members of the public was too great, particularly at  time of heightened tension over the issues around free speech and hate speech.

First of all there were no threats of violence. There was simply an open letter from one student. Secondly even if there were threats of violence, the proper response is to provide security, not allow what many now call the thug’s veto or heckler’s veto. To do otherwise is to incentivise people to make threats of violence against speakers they disagree with, so that the speakers are shut down.

But the VC makes very clear she think Brash is a “hate speaker” and this is beyond doubt why she made her decision. She said:

“Mr Brash’s leadership of Hobson’s Pledge and views he and its supporters espoused in relation to Māori wards on councils was clearly of concern to many staff, particularly Māori staff. Whether those views would have been repeated to students in the context of a discussion about the National Party may seem unlikely, but I have no way of knowing. In my opinion the views expressed by members of Hobson’s Pledge come dangerously close to hate speech.

So being against race based seats on Council, is akin to hate speech according to the VC, which can’t be tolerated as it may upset Maori staff.

By this logic I should be banned from speaking on Massey, as should John Key, Simon Bridges and most of the National caucus. Winston Peters has been against much of this stuff also. Would the Massey VC also deplatform him?

Don Brash is a former leader of the National Party. Almost 900,000 people voted (effectively) for him to be Prime Minister in 2005 (just 45,000 fewer than Clark’s Labour). For the Massey VC to ban him from speaking because of his views is insulting to pretty much every National voter.

Don Brash is no Southern or Molyneux. But the speech battle is connected. There is no doubt that the rationale is much the same – we find their views offensive and upsetting, so they must not be heard.

Universities are meant to be bastions of free speech. They should be the last places that should be banning someone for their views, let alone a former National Party Leader. If we let this one ride, then it will only get worse.

So I have some ideas for activism. Feel free to comment which ones are most worth doing. But we have to do something.

  1. A Boycott Massey graduates campaign. Encourage employers to announce they will hire no graduates from Massey because it is obviously a university which is hostile to diversity of thought, so one can’t trust any graduates to have been as rigorously tested as on other campuses. The boycott to cease only when Thomas rescinds her ban and apologises.
  2. Turn the Free Speech Coalition into a permanent group to fight this stuff. Fundraise heaps for a legal fighting fund, staff, advertisements.
  3. E-mail Massey Council members asking them to rein in Thomas and tell her to respect the requirement of academic freedom in the Education Act.
  4. Amend the Human Rights Act to require one of the Human Rights Commissioners to be a dedicated Free Speech Commissioner who can then fight these battles with Government resource. Sure many don’t like the HRC, but it isn’t going away so try and use it for good in this battle. Tim Wilson in Australia was very effective as a de facto Free Speech Commissioner.
  5. Target Massey’s funding. Identify major donors to Massey and request meetings with them to make the case for why they should donate to one of the other universities that doesn’t ban speakers on the personal whim of the VC.
  6. Target secondary school students and advise them not to enrol at Massey due to its hostility to free speech. One can hand out flyers at schools up and down the country.
  7. Seek a judicial review of the decision of the Vice-Chancellor under the Education Act and Bill of Rights Act.
  8. Lobby the Government to reduce funding to universities that don’t uphold free speech, as it being looked at in the UK
  9. A petition to the Massey University Council demanding they over-rule the VC

These are just off the top of my head. Some of them may be bad ideas, but hopefully not all of them. Are there any others that should be looked at?

The one thing we shouldn’t do is shrug and say well this is where society is going, and we can’t do anything about it. We have widespread support to fight this. Many on the left are appalled at this, such as academics Andrew Geddis and Jarrod Gilbert. We can’t afford to allow a Vice-Chancellor to unilaterally ban people from speaking on campus on such a flimsy pretext.

One of the great things about NZ is we have largely avoided the extremism and polarisation of politics that the US had. This act by the Massey VC is something you expect in the US with its culture wars. It has no place in NZ. If it is allowed to stand, then it will be a defining moment for us.

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