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Learn from the US response to the ‘heckler’s veto’

When it comes to academic freedom, New Zealand can learn from the trials American academia has gone through, writes Eric Crampton.

Moving to New Zealand in 2003 was a bit like stepping into an underpowered time machine. The new-release movies in theatre were ones that had hit the big screen in the US months earlier. TV series lagged by months, or even a season. Some web-based services seemed years behind.

It made it pretty easy to tell what was coming.

Since then, online entertainment streaming has gotten rid of those worse bits of the time machine, despite a few lagging series on Netflix. But there are still social and policy trends that hit here a few years after they pop up abroad.

The time machine then has its advantages: experience elsewhere can give us time to prepare, and a sense of how to respond.

Last week, Victoria University’s Associate Dean of Education Michael Johnston, in collaboration with colleagues from Victoria and elsewhere, launched a campaign to head off a potential problem before it gets firmly established here. Their group’s open letter to New Zealand’s Vice Chancellors asks them to affirm their support for long-standing principles of academic freedom.

The past decade saw a rise in what is too accurately called the heckler’s veto, or the thug’s veto, in universities abroad – and declines in academic freedom.

The letter was sparked by a few controversial moves at Massey University, earlier troubling cases in America, and a recognition that New Zealand sometimes is not immune from the madness of the world beyond but rather lags but a few years behind.

The past decade saw a rise in what is too accurately called the heckler’s veto, or the thug’s veto, in universities abroad – and declines in academic freedom. It is easy to overstate the prevalence of these kinds of cases, and their novelty, but there has been a real problem.

In 2017, student protests of an invited lecture by Dr Charles Murray at Middlebury College not only made Dr Murray’s lecture impossible, due to noise, but also sent Professor Allison Stranger to hospital when she was attacked by one of the protestors.

That same year, at Claremont McKenna, student protestors blocked their classmates from attending a lecture by Manhattan Institute Fellow Heather MacDonald.

The Foundation for Individual RIghts in Education chronicles violations of academic freedom and student speech rights in America, regularly tallying abuses like Northwestern University’s censorship of a department’s academic journal and its chilling investigations of other scholars; Texas State University’s threats to the funding of a student newspaper over content the administration did not like; and, DePaul University’s requiring a socialist student organisation not only to have security officers monitor their discussion with the author of a book on Karl Marx, but also to cover the security cost.

New Zealand seems far removed from these kinds of problems. But we are hardly immune.

Massey University’s blocking of an invited lecture by Dr Don Brash seemed to be rather more about the Vice Chancellor’s political differences with the former Reserve Bank Governor than about any purported security concerns. But it would be a problem in either case: neither the heckler’s veto, nor the ideologue’s, should have standing.

And when universities are caught between student groups protesting China’s repression of Hong Kong, and students from China potentially pressured by the Chinese Communist Party into launching counterprotests, appropriate responses are more difficult without a strong commitment to academic freedom for both faculty and students.

Universities can come to different decisions about how to handle difficult cases. When universities have a strong commitment to academic freedom and explain their decisions within that framework, differences in views about how any particular case should be treated can be fodder for the usual debates within a university.

But without that commitment, contentious decisions can look a lot more like a weakening of support for academic freedom. And that has implications for academia more broadly.

Universities have become ground zero in America’s culture wars in part because of public perception that academic enquiry has taken a back seat to campus politicisation. That then makes university funding a part of the culture wars rather than just part of education policy. It is something that should not be allowed to take root here as well.

Fortunately, since we are several years behind America in developing these problems, we can also look to the solutions that have there emerged. America’s fifty competing state university systems provide ample room for experimentation and for learning. And one university’s response has now been taken up by seventy others.

In 2014, the University of Chicago appointed a Committee on Freedom of Expression tasked with drafting a statement “articulating the University’s overarching commitment to free, robust, and uninhibited debate and deliberation among all members of the University’s community.”

The Committee’s report affirmed the University’s commitment to academic freedom. They wrote:

“Of course the ideas of different members of the University community will often and quite naturally conflict. But it is not the proper role of the University to attempt to shield individuals from ideas and opinions they find unwelcome, disagreeable, or even deeply offensive. Although the University greatly values civility, and although all members of the University community share in the responsibility for maintaining a climate of mutual respect, concerns about civility and mutual respect can never be used as a justification for closing off discussion of ideas, however offensive or disagreeable those ideas may be to some members of the community.

As a corollary to the University’s commitment to protect and promote free expression, members of the University community must also act in conformity with the principle of free expression. Although members of the University community are free to criticize and contest the views expressed on campus, and to criticize and contest speakers who are invited to express their views on campus, they may not obstruct or otherwise interfere with the freedom of others to express views they reject or even loathe. To this end, the University has a solemn responsibility not only to promote a lively and fearless freedom of debate and deliberation, but also to protect that freedom when others attempt to restrict it.”

The President of the University of Chicago, Robert Zimmer, penned an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal publicly reaffirming the University’s commitment to freedom of speech and academic freedom. He warned of risks to freedom of speech on campus: pressure to disinvite speakers, students’ shouting-down of unpopular speakers, student demands to eliminate uncomfortable readings, and calls for academics to apologise for unpopular views. And he noted that, too often, university administrators supported censorious demands.

... there is merit in universities demonstrably reaffirming their commitment to those principles to remind themselves, and everyone else, about the critical role of the university.

Chicago’s statement on academic freedom and free speech was sent to every incoming first-year student in 2016, so everyone knew the University’s ground rules, and so students would know that the University would not be cancelling speakers simply because some students disagreed with those speakers’ views.

Chicago’s Principles have been endorsed by a wide range of other top American universities including Princeton, the University of Minnesota, Amherst, Vanderbilt, Georgetown, the University of Colorado system, George Mason University, the State University System of Florida, and dozens of others.

Principles of academic freedom transcend time and national borders; the same principles embodied in the Chicago Statement can be seen in New Zealand’s Education Act.

But there is merit in universities demonstrably reaffirming their commitment to those principles to remind themselves, and everyone else, about the critical role of the university. We can learn from the trials American academia has gone through, and remedy the problem before it becomes entrenched here.

What would be the point of having New Zealand’s underpowered time-machine if we didn’t take advantage of the opportunities it provides?

New Zealand’s Vice Chancellors should heed Associate Dean Johnston’s call that they endorse Chicago’s Statement on Academic Freedom.

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