Freedom of speech in universities

There has been a lot of discussion in media about free speech in universities after 27 “high profile” New Zealanders wrote an open letter. It took a while to find a copy of the actual letter:

Freedom of speech underpins our way of life in New Zealand as a liberal democracy. It enables religious observance, individual development, societal change, science, reason and progress in all spheres of life. In particular, the free exchange of ideas is a cornerstone of academe.

Governments and particular groups will from time to time seek to restrict freedom of speech in the name of safety or special interest. However, debate or deliberation must not be suppressed because the ideas put forth are thought by some or even by most people to be offensive, unwise, immoral, or wrong-headed.

Universities play a fundamental role in the thought leadership of a society. They, of all places, should be institutions where robust debate and the free exchange of ideas take place, not the forceful silencing of dissenting or unpopular views.

Intellectual rigour must prevail over emotional blackmail.

Individuals, not any institution or group, should make their own judgments about ideas and should express these judgments not by seeking to suppress speech, but by openly and vigorously contesting the ideas they oppose, without discrimination or intimidation.

We must ensure that our higher learning establishments are places where intellectual rigour prevails over emotional blackmail and where academic freedom, built on free expression, is maintained and protected. We must fight for each other’s right to express opinions, even if we do not agree with them.


Assoc Prof Len Bell, Dr Don Brash, Dr David Cumin, Sir Toby Curtis, Dr Brian Edwards, Graeme Edwards, Dr Gavin Ellis, Sir Michael Friedlander, Alan Gibbs, Dame Jenny Gibbs, Bryan Gould, Wally Hirsh, Prof Manying Ip, Sir Bob Jones, Prof Pare Keiha, Assoc Prof Hon Luamanuvao, Winnie Laban, Dame Lesley Max, Gordon McLauchlan, Prof Paul Moon, Sir Douglas Myers, Assoc Prof Camille Nakhid, Sir Geoffrey Palmer, Prof Edwina Pio, David Rankin, Philip Temple, Dame Tariana Turia, Prof Albert Wendt.

Paul Moon followed this up with an opinion piece published by Stuff:

Freedom of speech in New Zealand’s universities under attack

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 traditionally played a leading role in challenging conventions and ushering in new ways of thinking and doing.

The forced closure of a student club at Auckland University recently – and threats to their members’ safety – is a slippery slope we should all be wary of. Kneejerk calls from Police and the Human Rights Commission to introduce hate-speech laws after recent abuse against ethnic communities will have the unintended consequence of suppressing free speech.

Education, open debate and understanding will change racist and intolerant views – not censorship.

A vibrant society permits heretic views to be expressed. A country where the state – or universities for that matter – determines what is a permissible thought and what isn’t is a dictatorships, not a modern democracy.

History shows that it is fear and intolerance that drives suppression of free speech, rather than free speech causing fear and intolerance. Those who attempt to suppress free speech, tend to do so out of fear and intolerance. Censorship is a crude tool used to replace healthy counter-argument.

That we think and believe different things is something to be cherished, not smothered, and different ideas and opinions are something to be welcomed. That is how we learn and progress.

Universities teach people how, not what, to think. Now more than ever, they must protect the very core of their work – free expression.

Paul Moon is Professor of History at Auckland University of Technology.

Leave a comment


  1. Corky

     /  9th April 2017

    Here’s the thing..why has it taken so long? Why aren’t other sectors of society joining this fight? District Health Board Workers for example who are kowtowed into silence regarding the Maorification of health services above common sense and best practice.

    Lets be blunt. This is a liberal problem. Unfortunately liberals have received help at the 11th hour- Its called social media, and its a very powerful weapon. So powerful its capable of dropping a multi national corporation to their knees and have them beg for forgiveness.

    That means the fight will take a little longer. However, we must be on the look out for hordes of idiots who are looking for a cause… I fear the anti liberal, anti PC movement may become a carbon copy of liberal suppression of free speech. The other thing that’ll need watching is what will liberal SJW’ create once they realise their social justice cause is now considered a joke. Such fanatics don’t just burrow back into the wood work. They hate the West, they hate their culture, they hate progress and they despise success. Something will have to replace neo-liberalism as a whipping boy

    • Blazer

       /  9th April 2017

      great clip Corky.

    • Gezza

       /  9th April 2017

      “Something will have to replace neo-liberalism as a whipping boy”
      Supremacist Militarism & using it for attacking sovereign states could be next. Let’s wait & see.

  2. Blazer

     /  9th April 2017

    very prolific…’virus’ this one…’The pretext of avoiding offence is regularly hauled out as the basis for curtailing free speech ‘.

  3. Missy

     /  9th April 2017

    There has been a lot of discussion in the media here around this issue, it is getting worse at UK Universities, with the latest story just last week saying that one University will fail students who do not use gender neutral language in essays. This is after another University threatened students and staff with disciplinary action if they didn’t use gender neutral language.

    The Higher Eduction Minister, Jo Johnson, has reportedly written to universities telling them it is their legal duty to ensure students, staff and visitors are not barred entry based on their beliefs, or views, policy or objectives. This comes after a trend over recent years of ‘no platforming’ at Universities of speakers that don’t have the right views.

    A study earlier this year found that 94% of Universities in the UK censor their students.

    It is a sad day for freedom of speech when legislation is being considered to compel Universities in a democratic country to enshrine freedom of speech on campus.

  1. Freedom of speech in universities – NZ Conservative Coalition

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