A vibrant society permits heretic views to be expressed””, says Paul Moon, [Professor of History at the Faculty of Maori Development at Auckland University of Technology] in this Opinion Piece from The Dominion Post, Tuesday, (4 April 2017}, p. A 7.
A plea for free speech in our universities might seem about as unnecessary as a demand that all people be treated equally under the law.
After all, the Education Act asserts clearly the right of academics to speak as critics and consciences of society – supposedly securing universities as bastions of independent thought and open expression.
Yet, recent events at home and overseas are endangering freedom of speech at our universities.
Threats against minority communities in New Zealand, and in other Western countries, and terrorist attacks in Europe are having a chilling effect. A recent study of 115 British universities found only seven had not experienced some sort of censorship, ban or intervention which curbed free speech.
The right to free speech is so ingrained in New Zealand’s ethos that today a diverse group of 27 high-profile New Zealanders has released an open letter warning of “the forceful silencing of dissenting or unpopular views” on our university campuses.
Its signatories include not only academics, and business and community leaders, but some of our most outspoken commentators, including Sir Bob Jones, Dr Don Brash, Sir Geoffrey Palmer and Dame Turiana Turia.
Of course, with rights come with responsibilities. Freedom of speech must have some constraints; that’s why it is a crime to incite hatred and violence. And damaging someone’s reputation – outside the privileged protection provided at universities and Parliament – can end in a defamation suit.
Just as the courts and the media must always jealously guard freedom of speech from state controls, so must our universities.
The pretext of avoiding offence is regularly hauled out as the basis for curtailing free speech on campuses. If a group is offended by an idea or argument, it is increasingly – and misguidedly – believed it is better to ban or “disinvite” the causers rather than ruffle sensitivities or risk the speaker being drowned out by vigorous protest.
This patronising sanctimony continues to gain ground along with an absurd notion that universities should provide intellectual “safe-spaces”.
There is no inalienable right not to be offended. It is paradoxical that those who clamour for such “safe spaces” often seem untroubled by the intimidation being used to shut down unpopular speech.
It is precisely these intellectually dangerous or subversive spaces that academics and students must enter and explore. Political dissent, artistic deviance and intellectual rebellion are at the heart of a healthy and progressive society, and universities have tradtionally played a leading role in challenging conventions and ushering in new ways of thinking and doing. [Read more…]