As predicted the “big blunder” at Massey may help free speech

On 7 August when Massey University vice-chancellor cancelled a student political event to prevent Don Brash from speaking I suggested that Massey’s Brash ban may help free speech:

…today when the Vice Chancellor of Massey University banned Don Brash from talking there there has been as near to universal concern and condemnation – and for good reason.

It is an alarming attempt to restrict speech – but this may turn out to be a good thing. It may be the overstep that is needed to encourage a decent debate about who should determine what sort of speech should be effectively censored.

Now Bryce Edwards writes Free speech has been strengthened at Massey

The attempt by the head of Massey University to ban Don Brash from speaking on campus last month has entirely backfired. Instead of Brash being undermined by her actions, it now looks like Vice Chancellor Jan Thomas is in danger of losing her position. What’s more, her actions have ended up reinforcing academic freedoms on campus.

He quotes from a Newstalk ZB interview with history professor Peter Lineham:

“I think it is a big, big blunder… this has put the university in a very bad light” and in terms of the university staff, “I think most people are uneasy about the decision”.

Lineham explained how the Academic Council met yesterday and “grilled” their boss. He gives an idea of how Massey staff feel, saying there was “intense discussion at Academic Board, because she seemed to have started off being very determined to find some way or other to stop Don Brash’s visit, and then retreated from it, and then up came the safety issue, which I think had it been looked at in the cold and hard light of day didn’t really amount to much.”

Perhaps Lineham’s most important point in the interview is about how campus free speech has actually been strengthened as a result of the Brash-ban debacle:

“I think we have recovered free speech a bit because this controversy has strongly marked the New Zealand campuses by the fact that vice chancellors – and this is happening throughout the world – cannot play nanny to the students. That’s a ridiculous role. The students can choose who they want to listen to, and can have whatever views they want. And I think this particular incident has made every vice chancellor realise that they need to keep their hands out of deciding what students should listen to.”

I hope that is the outcome of what was initially a debacle at Massey. I’m not sure it has been put to the test yet. That may happen next month when  Brash has been invited again to speak to students at Massey.

University staff are now openly signalling their unhappiness with the Vice Chancellor (who is akin to a chief executive). Deputy pro-vice chancellor Chris Gallavin has been speaking publicly about staff feelings. Appearing on RNZ yesterday he said:

“There is significant worry, and perhaps even distrust if not anger in the minds of many Massey University staff, that they may have been told an untruth or at very least not the whole story” – see: Don Brash cancellation: Censure motions against vice chancellor.

Gallavin explains the motions that academic staff are considering against Thomas, which will be voted on next month. The RNZ article reports: “Professor Gallavin said he had never heard of a board passing a censure motion against a vice-chancellor and it would send ‘a strong message’ to the Council about the staff’s ‘disappointment’.”

It should also send a strong message to other vice-chancellors and universities.

“Whether she should resign really revolves around that question as to whether she still has the trust and confidence of the staff”.

Should Thomas be pressured to resign? It would be a tough outcome for her, she is just one of a number of people who have tried to restrict free speech on campuses.

But I think a resignation or sacking would be a positive for free speech.

There would probably be a public down side, as it would encourage some to push harder for other resignations and sackings if a university official or academic sought to restrict or adversely influence free speech.

On the plus side, it would send a strong and clear message to universities that free speech is important and matters, especially in universities.