Saturday, June 22

“Free speech, but…”

I’m always reluctant to use sporting analogies, especially American ones. But after witnessing what happened yesterday at the Victoria University Free Speech Symposium held in Wellington, I find it impossible not to compare this much anticipated event to the infamous game-fixing of the Baseball World Series of 1919.  I’m not suggesting the VUW symposium involved bribes or corruption of any kind. The carefully choreographed proceedings and the overwhelmingly left-leaning panel meant there was absolutely no way the proposed “contest of ideas” would ever have any chance of appearing free or spontaneous.

So, when it comes to making any clear commitment to upholding principles of free speech, what can we as NZ citizens expect of our publicly funded universities?

Well, it really depends on which academic you’re asking.

Vice Chancellor Nic Smith in his welcome address quoted arguably the greatest champion of free speech, Frederick Douglass – an escaped African American slave and leading 19th century abolitionist – who contended that free speech was essential for human flourishing and without it racism, among many other evils, could not be properly countered. Evoking Douglass was a promising start. Yet Smith immediately followed this inspirational moment with the conclusion that NZ in 2024 is quite different to the war-torn USA of 1863. Smith did not elaborate, leaving at least those in the audience with some knowledge of black civil rights history befuddled. Were we to assume that the wisdom of a black man born into literal slavery and self-liberated by his own enormous intelligence, courage and efforts is somewhat obsolete on modern day universities with their need to deal with the rank injustice of micro-aggressions and safe spaces on campus? Smith meant well, I assume. But what he meant? Well….

The umpire, Corin Dann of Radio NZ, officiated firmly and efficiently, presumably with instructions to keep the panellists from engaging in any form of freestyle debate. Yet it soon transpired that any fears of rogue speech and disorderly behaviour weren’t going to materialise. The average age of both panellists and audience members was around 50 years old. Curiously, most participants seemed unclear on where they actually stood on the matter of free speech. It was as if they’d never considered there would be a need for a detailed blueprint of the brave new world they’ve long envisioned. It’s easy to paint broad strokes, but now it was about the nitty-gritty. They spoke of free thought and expression, though each in their own way focused most of their attention and concerns on the safety of various minorities. The most compelling voice on this specific point was Anjum Rahman, a Muslim woman who, to the aggravation of many in the room, argued that free speech was in fact one of the greatest protections for the welfare of any minority. She also stressed that students needed to be made uncomfortable “three times a week” at minimum by ideas they encounter at university. But there was considerable uncertainty about what she was expressing in the rest of her speech and this culminated with her challenge to Corin Dann to imagine what it would be like to have someone threaten to behead him. It was, to be fair, an awkward moment, but one which lacked a necessary explanation. There was probably a very salient point in there, but most people were still recoiling at the visualisation of Dann’s impressively mustachioed talking head being despatched from his body to know what she meant exactly.

The two Māori panelists had completely different views as to whether free speech values were indigenous or not. Law lecturer Morgan Godfery suggested Māori had a pretty “wide” definition of what free speech could be and admitted that marae and hui tended to exemplify this in the way they operate. Dean of the AUT Law School Khylee Quince was adamant that free speech values were an alien concept to Te Ao Māori and merely a product of colonization.

Most speakers used the all-too-familiar line “free speech is vital but…” However, inevitably with such a diverse panel it was very telling that none of them could entirely agree where this right should end. Many agreed with Rahman that discomfort was necessary, but people could not be left “unsafe.” When pressed, no one could give an adequate definition of “unsafe” and how the limits could be practically enforced. Australian John Byron spent much of his time apologizing for his “white privilege” and the basic problem posed by his very existence in the world.

Jonathan Ayling and Dr Michael Johnston were the two dissenting voices advancing what was, until recently, a pretty conventional perspective in a liberal democracy. Arguing in favour of free speech, both Ayling and Johnston expressed the crucial idea that what had changed the equation on campuses in recent years was the ideological divergence of members in our society from a set of shared fundamental values. For instance, many no longer have the same view of human nature, the pursuit of knowledge or an agreed democratic ethos. So, it shouldn’t come as any great surprise that we now find ourselves at odds over where we put the boundaries of speech, thought and expression.

Ayling, as has been the pattern of the last few months in leading up to this event, found himself the target of radical ire. The formidable Professor Jane Kelsey (recently retired) replete in activist garb made it her special mission to try and discredit the work of the Free Speech Union, the Coalition Government, the Act Party in particular, and basically any traditionally-minded person in the past 20 years with even just a nostalgic attachment to free speech. There were a few nods from the more revolutionary-minded in the crowd, but it was hard for anyone to think much past what they were going to have for dinner at this point.

What the VUW Symposium showed was that the game is being redesigned while we’re playing it and there is no shortage of confusion. This is the reality most of us know already. But perhaps what yesterday showed especially well is that even when they rig the game in their favour, our would-be censors still don’t know how to agree with each other on what the new game ought to look like. They’re too busy scoring own goals and blowing the whistle at the tiniest infractions.

Sorry for mixing sports codes in my metaphors, but given the self-loathing-virtue signalling-identity crisis we’ve been witnessing on university campuses lately, we’re evidently living in some pretty mixed up times. We need to have a proper debate in this country, unfettered and honest, about free speech. Victoria University is only one of many tertiary institutions to prove that self-proclaimed “experts” have lost sight of the value of free speech and the unique way of life it has afforded us all. Now, without bold and coherent advocacy from the Free Speech Union and like-minded others, it is a way of life we could very easily lose.