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Universities must step up for free speech

The controversy over Massey University’s ban on Don Brash speaking to politics students has been an overwhelming victory for free speech, according to Victoria University's Bryce Edwards. He argues that academics, students and universities now need to re-assert the culture of robust and diverse debate on campuses.

The reaction to the banning of Don Brash from speaking at Massey University has largely been one of condemnation of Vice Chancellor Jan Thomas for her illiberal actions. Unlike the controversy over visiting Canadian alt-right provocateurs Lauren Southern and Stefan Molyneux, there is little support for authorities denying Brash the ability to speak.

Massey University has damaged its reputation over the banning. Many in the media and on social media have questioned the credibility and status of the university now taking such censorious decisions. And politicians appear to be united against Massey’s draconian actions. 

This should please and assuage those in favour of political freedoms. After all, a worryingly illiberal atmosphere pervaded the controversy over the Canadians. Most in the public debate appeared to be happy for the Auckland City Council, and then a private venue, to discriminate against the Canadians (and their potential audience) on the basis of their political views and messages. Very few were willing to stand up publicly and say that they detested what Southern and Molyneux preached, but were willing to support their political freedom to do so.

In fact, in the aftermath of the Massey-Brash debacle, New Zealand universities have the perfect chance to show that they are the bastions of critical thinking and openness to robust debate.

Interestingly, the reverse has now occurred in the Brash case – with many political opponents willing to defend Brash’s political right of expression despite disagreeing with his views. But as lawyer Juliet Moses has pointed out on Twitter, “It’s good to see some people on the ‘left’ coming out against the Brash ban. But some of those same people cheered on, and supported the appeasement of, those making threats against the Canadians. This is the predictable result. It was never going to end there.”

The question of political freedom is now firmly on the agenda – especially in terms of university campuses. No doubt there will be further controversies and tests of other universities, with academic staff and students of a more illiberal bent seeking to close down debates and speakers when their message is judged to be offensive or too radical. 

But the strong backlash against the Brash ban shows that New Zealanders, including academics, aren’t keen to go down the illiberal path that we’ve seen in other parts of the world lately – especially in the US and UK, where controversial academics and visiting speakers have been “de-platformed”. These campus “cultural wars” can hopefully be avoided here. 

The fact that Brash has been welcomed to participate in a debate at Auckland University this week – arguing “PC culture has gone too far to the point of limiting freedom of speech” – indicates that other New Zealand universities aren’t going to follow Massey’s illiberalism. Yes, there will be protests against Brash political views, but if this turns into an attempt to shut him down, these protestors will clearly be on the wrong side of public feeling, which is in favour of intellectual inclusivity and diversity, rather than the suppression of unpopular ideas.

In fact, in the aftermath of the Massey-Brash debacle, New Zealand universities have the perfect chance to show that they are the bastions of critical thinking and openness to robust debate. They should now make an extra effort to illustrate to the public that campuses in this country are robust and democratic enough to invite Brash and other radical thinkers and speakers into public debates. 

Of course, such debates should include other radicals and sometimes-unpopular and contentious people. The likes of Nicky Hager, Sandra Coney, Michael Laws, Hone Harawira, Donna Awatere-Huata, and John Minto could be given platforms and opportunities to discuss and debate contemporary political and social issues. And, of course, students should be welcome to challenge or even protest their politics. The only thing that should be banned is the suppression of political views.

International intellectual and political leaders should also be invited onto our campuses. My pick would be leftwing sociologist Kenan Malik from the UK – he’s a  Guardian newspaper columnist and harsh critic of multiculturalism and identity politics. Marxist philosopher Slovoj Zizek would be a fantastic speaker (termed the “Elvis of cultural theory” and “the most dangerous philosopher in the West”). Camille Paglia – the American libertarian gender theorist – would also be fascinating on recent shifts in feminist thought and practice. 

Then there are controversial international politicians already due to come here this year – Nigel Farage and Pauline Hanson. They might not be scholars, but in our current era of global populism and reactionary politics we can learn from debate and dialogue with those who have struck a chord with people who are too frequently termed “the deplorables”. This is no time for either intellectual snobbery or censorship – in fact such trends are exactly what is helping fuel global rebellions against elites and experts. 

Those who are unconvinced that New Zealand universities must be robust spaces for debate should take a look at what’s happening in the US, where university campuses are quickly becoming “safe space” zones in which management seeks to protect students from encountering “offensive” ideas or arguments. 

One of the bright lights, however, is the University of Chicago, which has consciously avoided this trend. It regularly invites controversial speakers that wouldn’t be allowed onto other campuses – the latest invite has gone out to former Donald Trump adviser, Steve Bannon. Chicago is therefore increasingly known as “the free speech university”. One recent article explains that this approach has also been successful: “The elevation of Chicago’s free speech posture has come, perhaps not coincidentally, on the heels of a remarkable leap in the university’s prominence and prestige.” 

Local universities should take note. Instead of going down the Massey path, we need to take a new more open approach on our campuses – one that is truly tolerant of dissent and diverse thought, but also one that applies proper scrutiny to radical ideas. Such a celebration of vigorous political and intellectual discourse on our campuses is the obvious way to deal with the rising climate of censoriousness that we’ve been witnessing lately. It’d be the perfect antidote to the ugly political atmosphere of “culture wars”, which if unchecked, might soon escalate into a much worse political environment for everyone.

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