How much Freedom of Speech do we have in our universities?

When I went off to study at Waikato University many moons ago I was very excited. I saw universities as bastions of free speech and looked forward to debating topics and expressing my points of view, backed up by evidence of course.I particularly enjoyed my Social and Moral Philosophy classes. It was in that class that I realised free speech can hurt, as I remember a debate on abortion being stopped when a female class mate became distressed.

Despite the fact that debating issues can upset or offend people, Universities have a duty to uphold the principles of free speech. Both sides of every issue should be explored and guest speakers from both sides of issues should always be made welcome. No one is forced to attend these speeches and I do not understand why university students and university professors, feel that they have the right to disrupt the speakers or even prevent them from coming to the university at all. If you thought this kind of thing was only happening overseas you would be wrong. It is happening right here in New Zealand.

Educators in New Zealand have an honourable record in upholding the value of freedom of speech ? as well they should for the value is also the lifeblood of a liberal democracy. But traditions sometimes get a little frayed around the edges?and the view from many sides is not as glittering as it once may have been.

Two recent events underscore the emergence of a worrying trend.

In the first, AUT University?s Love Chile, an associate professor, refused to host a Palestinian human rights activist who happens to be critical of the Palestinian Authority. While Associate Professor Chile had hosted other Palestinians, in this instance he declined, announcing ?I don?t think I share the philosophical/political position of this particular person.? The Fabian Society, an organisation claiming ?to provide a forum for education and debate?, withdrew from hosting the same Palestinian. In the event, the University of Auckland?s Mira Sz?szy Research Centre brought honour to its founder?s name by hosting the speaker, who?as might be expected?spurred lively debate. Nor did the sky fall in.

Kudos to the University of Auckland and the Mira Szaszy Tesearch Centre for truly being a bastion of free speech.

Next, the University of Canterbury?s Political Science Society (UCPols) and some Victoria University of Wellington educators attempted to pull the plug on a couple of visiting Israelis who had been invited to their respective institutions. The young Israelis were to share their personal experiences of compulsory military service in the 2014 Gaza conflict but UCPols vice president Hannah Rhodes wasn?t having a bar of it. Due to the ?controversial nature?, she said, ?we felt that we could not fairly represent each side in the situation?. The welcome mat was accordingly withdrawn.

So much for campus freedoms. An examination of previous UCPols events reveals a Maori Politics Panel, for example, where all three panelists seemed to share ideologies. Another event hosting the leader of the Labour party had no other party represented, and no other political leader invited separately. And two invitations to Nicky Hager, a journalist with strong political leanings, took place with no balancing speakers.

I know for a fact that Cameron (a journalist with strong political leanings) would have been happy to speak if only he had been invited. As he was the journalist victim of both Rawshark and Hager he was the obvious choice for a balancing speaker. Hager got to explain why he thought it was acceptable to do what he did and Cameron should have been invited to explain why what was done to him was unethical and not acceptable.

By contrast, the VUW Students Association decided to allow the two Israeli students to share their perspectives and ensured there was adequate security to control the accompanying protest. The Israelis gave personal accounts of their experiences and respectfully answered questions with only minor interruptions from audience activists.

Once again, the sky did not fall in; there was an exchange of ideas at the University.

Again, kudos to the VUW Students Association?(Victoria University Wellington) for truly being a bastion of free speech.

The VUW Students Association conducted themselves with integrity even in the face of pressure from academics to not hold the event. A group of about 20 academics signed a letter expressing ?dismay? that the Israelis should be allowed to speak on campus while, ironically, applauding the protesters who ?uphold essential traditions of free speech?.

One of the academics who signed that letter was Dr Sandra Grey, head of the TEU.

The Tertiary Education Union,?an organisation that aims to ?foster collegial, inclusive, and equitable workplaces?, issued a media release on the controversy over the Israeli speakers?and comments from readers were in favour of their freedom of speech.

?This seems pretty straightforward,? one comment said. ?So long as the speakers do not incite violence or commit a hate crime, and those hosting the speech are affiliated with the University, i [sic] can?t see why they shouldn?t be able to give a talk. And equally, people can sign letters and picket.?

Yet a group calling itself Academic Freedom Aotearoa, whose media spokesperson is listed as Dr Sandra Grey, argued that because, in its view, the soldiers were ?not academics?, there was no ?debate about whether they can claim academic freedom.?

This is just silly. Of course, the visitors were not claiming ?academic? freedom but the very human freedom?freedom of speech?something scholars should pride themselves on upholding.

Academics seeking to silence those who hold different opinions is, shockingly, not uncommon in overseas universities?but it?s a trend we really ought not to be following.

The libertarian magazine Spiked surveyed 115 UK universities in 2014, examining the policies and actions of universities and students? unions. It found that as many as four out of every five universities in the UK censored speech to some degree, half of them egregiously so. Similar work in the US by the?Foundation for Individual Rights in Education found 55% of 437 campuses were currently cut from the same censorious cloth.

There are, similarly, individuals in our universities, as in our schools, who appear to be frightened of legitimate debate. That much is human, perhaps, but when official bodies play the same unworthy game they should at least have the decency to identify their unacademic posturing for what it is.

Liberal societies are built on the cornerstone of the free exchange of ideas. We should be very worried if the ability to debate opposing views is suppressed or censored by a ?priesthood? of the academic elite.