Massey, free speech, racism and Māori issues

The Massey University free speech debate flared up after politician (ex Leader of the Opposition) and activist on a number of issues Don Brash was prevented from speaking about his experience as a politician.

The person who cancelled the event that Brash was due to speak at, vice-chancellor, cited security issues, but it is clear she didn’t want Brash to speak due to what she claims is his ‘racism’.

17 July Jan Thomas (NZH): Free speech is welcome at universities, hate speech is not

Let me be clear, hate speech is not free speech. Moreover, as Moana Jackson has eloquently argued, free speech has, especially in colonial societies, long been mobilised as a vehicle for racist comments, judgements and practices.

Beyond the reach of the law, however, the battle against hate speech is fought most effectively through education and courageous leadership, rather than through suppression or legal censure.

And this is where universities can take positive action by providing a venue for reasoned discussion and cogent argument.

Universities are characterised by the academic values of tolerance, civility, and respect for human dignity.

And that is why it is important to identify and call out any shift from free speech towards hate speech. The challenge we face is to clarify when that shift occurs and to counter it with reason and compassion.

It should be countered with better arguments, not banning.

8 August (edited from an interview on Newstalk ZB): Massey vice chancellor Jan Thomas tries to explain Brash ban

What I have said was that ah there was an event held in ah the Manawatu here on our campus, ah from ah Hobson’s Pledge ah which ah was particularly offensive for ah particularly our Maori staff, and ah that is not the sort of thing that I would like to see at a university campus. Um that wasn’t ah Dr Brash speaking, um it was around ah Hobson’s Pledge that particular time.

So those sorts of events are events ah where the discussion um moves from being one ah of talking about ah the issues and evidence based ah good rational debate where people are able to speak about um their perspectives on a whole range of different things.

I also am quite happy to stand behind my comments that hate speech is not welcome on campus, and the way I would consider hate speech is ah when hate speech might demean or humiliate or silence groups of people based on a common trait, whether it be sexuality or religion or race or whatever, um because ah that is essentially ah the same as bullying of a larger group of people, and we don’t tolerate  bullying in the playground do we…

In emails (from Kiwiblog Massey lying over cancellation of Brash speech):

So I sum, I really want to find a way to indicate that Brash is not welcome on campus unless he agrees to abide by our values and the laws against hate speech.

The notion of exploring ideas and free speech on campus should be providing that it does not cause harm to others and does not break the laws. Hate speech had no place on our campus and as a te Tiriti led university our values need to be respected too. I feel a great deal of responsibility around the WHS responsibilities to our Māori staff and students.

I think these are quite common type views where there are valid concerns over biased and racist attacks on Māori (and other minority races in New Zealand, which most people have some connection to).

But it can also be used to shut down valid different opinions on Māori issues. Don Brash has become a major figure in these discussions since he became infamous for his NATIONHOOD – Don Brash Speech Orewa Rotary Club in 2004.

His more recent association with Hobson’s Pledge “He iwi tahi tatou: We are now one people.” has kept the attacks on him coming – and this played a part in Thomas’ ban. Like:

And:

The problem is that Brash just needs to open his mouth now to be called racist.

There are alternative views:

There are important issues facing Māori  in Aotearoa, and they should speak up on them, as many do. Of course there are a wide range of Māori views, and they should all feel free to speak up.

Non-Māori people should not be excluded from these debates – Māori  issues affect every New Zealander.

‘Hating’ someone else’s view does not mean there is hate speech.

I think it is important to, if anything, err towards allowing and enabling challenging views and debate, not shutting it down because someone claims that they are or may be offended.

People like Don Brash have as much right to speak as anyone – and Brash is very well aware of the scrutiny anything he says will get, and will be careful he sticks to carefully expressing his views on  contentious issues .

Jan Thomas:

What I do object to is where um speech that demeans or humiliates or silences groups of people based on a common trait. Ah in other words playing the man and not the ball, ah is ah is something that we don’t accept on a university campus, that everyone should feel that they can express their views in a way that is not um going to be subject to being demeaned or humiliated.

I think that Brash more than most plays the ball and not the man or woman.

Thomas banned the man and dropped the free speech ball. She has demeaned and humiliated herself.

People who try to stop speech they disagree with, whether they call it hate speech, racist or demeaning, end up demeaning their own arguments.

But this debate looks to be far from over, From a statement by the Tertiary Education Union President:

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.

Students’ Association: “Massey Vice-Chancellor has broken our trust”

The Massey University academic Board has acknowledged that two motions of censure have been lodged against Vice Chancellor Jan Thomas, but they won’t be voted on for a month.

In the meantime the New Zealand University Student’s Association has put out a press release:


Massey Vice-Chancellor has broken our trust

The New Zealand Union of Students’ Associations (NZUSA) is outraged by recent revelations that a Vice-Chancellor threatened to cut funding to a students’ association due to actions they disagreed with.

In emails released under the Official Information Act, Massey University Vice-Chancellor Jan Thomas considered cutting funding to the students’ association and clubs if they decided to proceed with an event involving Don Brash speaking on campus.

‘We should be able to have robust debate on campus with people we disagree with, including our university leaders. But to consider cutting funding to a group that disagrees with your actions is just foul play,’ says National President Jonathan Gee.

‘While we do not agree with Don Brash’s views on race and many other issues, we support the right to free speech. As the critic and conscience of society, universities should be the bastions of that, not undermine it,’ says Massey University Students’ Association (MUSA) President Ngahuia Kirton.

Gee says that these tactics have stemmed from Voluntary Student Membership, where tertiary institutions’ management now hold all the cards.

‘Students’ associations have for too long been silenced from criticising our institutions for fear of ‘biting the hand that feeds us’. These emails from the Vice-Chancellor are the purest example of the silencing effect that Voluntary Student Membership has had on student voice.’

Voluntary Student Membership (VSM) was passed by Parliament through the Education (Freedom of Association) Amendment Bill in 2011, despite strong opposition. Since VSM, students’ associations have had to negotiate their core funding with their tertiary institutions, as opposed to receiving levies from students directly. The revenues of students’ associations have since reduced dramatically, some by over half since 2011.

‘Two wrongs do not make a right. Threatening cuts to funding key student services in order to get what you want is not fair game. Everybody loses,’ says Jason Woodroofe, Albany Students’ Association President.

The Vice-Chancellor has also broken the trust of staff and students through assuring them that her main consideration in preventing Don Brash from speaking was security, when this has clearly not been the case. She has misled the Chair of Academic Board, who are in part the guardians of the university’s role of being society’s critic and conscience.

‘We join Massey’s students’ associations in their call for their University Council to clarify its stance on funding independent students’ associations. The Vice-Chancellor has broken the trust we have with our institutions, and we want to rebuild that.’


Massey University responds

Two responses from Massey University today in response to Massey Vice Chancellor appears to have lied over Brash ban – Jan Thomas has backed her controversial position, but there two motions of censure have been put to the Massey Academic Board.

Not surprisingly that was widely criticised as it didn’t really address her misleading or false claims.

Newstalk ZB:  Massey University board tables motions to censure Vice Chancellor

Some on Massey University’s board are moving against its Vice-Chancellor, after she stopped Don Brash from speaking at the Palmerston North campus.

Two motions have been tabled to censure Vice-Chancellor Jan Thomas, after emails were revealed showing she grappled with Brash’s speaking engagement before cancelling the event over security concerns.

Deputy Vice-Chancellor Chris Gallivan told Larry Williams the first motion simply relates to the cancellation.

“The second is a censure relating to the information upon which the decision was made, which is still relatively unclear. The emails that have come out have been most unfortunate.”

Gallivan says the board will vote on the motions when they meet in a month.

He says if the motions pass, it will effectively be a telling off, and won’t directly affect Thomas’s job.

Good to see the motions of censure, but not addressing it for a month seems ridiculous, this will drag it out, with a stink remaining over free speech at Massey.

And it sounds like any vote in favour of censure will be little more than mildly symbolic.

Another interview with Galliven at RNZ:

Massey vice-chancellor under fire after release of emails

Massey Vice Chancellor appears to have lied over Brash ban

The controversial cancelling of a student political club event at Massey University due to the scheduled inclusion of Don Brash kicked up a lot of discussion about Brash’s views (strongly criticised by some), about free speech, and about free speech at universities.

The issue has been raised again by David Farrar, who through emails obtained through the Official Information Act shows that Vice Chancellor Jan Thomas was not being truthful to the public or to the Massey academic board in her explanations for the cancellation of the event.

She had explained on Newstalk ZB (8 August)

Massey University defends barring Don Brash

Larry Williams: What were the reasons for cancelling?

Jan Thomas: The reason we cancelled was because the students who had booked the venue and had agreed to terms of use had come to us and identified their concerns around their ability to maintain security at the event, and so on the basis of that we took another look at things and based on some things we were observing on social media I became concerned that there was a genuine threat to the safety of our staff and students and members of the public.

And so unfortunately it’s a really tough decision and I don’t like making these decisions but based on the safety of our community I chose to cancel the event.

Larry Williams: Was this more about your personal views though, you don’t like Dr Brash?

Jan Thomas: Ah, I made the decision on the basis of the safety of our staff. In fact the venue had been booked um for some time and the students association, the politics society, had done a terrific job of setting up a programme of speakers who were going to be discussing their particular perspectives on politics. That of course is the mandate of the student association and I supported that and that had all gone through the normal processes.

So he would have spoken along with other current and future leaders of ah the National Party in a sequence of talks past current and future, ah and ah I think that was, these are precisely the sorts of things that should and do happen on university campuses, and it wasn’t until we became aware of ah concerns around security ah that I made a really difficult decision to cancel the event.

But the emails show that Thomas wanted the event cancelled because of what she described as Brash’s racist views, which she described a month prior to the above ‘explanation’ as “I do not want a te tiriti university to be seen to be enoorsing racist behaviours” (9 July):

After a series of emails on 13 July what Farrar describes as the “smoking bullet”:

Farrar comments:

Here the VC says allow Brash to speak will clash with the te Tiriti led ambition and affect their Maori colleagues. She asks if funding can be used to pressure the student associations. And she concludes:

She says she wants the event stopped, and “if it proves impossible” suggests modifying conditions of use of facilities and student funding to make it easier to stop similar events in the future.

Farrar:

There is no doubt that Massey University is lying and treating us as fools when they now try and claim it was purely about security. They have become a university without integrity and without free speech.

And here she talks about refusing entry:

And all this is before any security issues were raised.

The OIA release shows that Massey University has leadership that is hostile to free speech and believes that anyone who has a view different to them on the Treaty of Waitangi has no place at Massey University.

Not only did Thomas mislead the public over this, she appears to have lied to the Massey academic board. Farrar says that “This is what the academic board chair e-mailed colleagues”:

Distinguished Professor Sally Morgan Chair of Academic Board Meeting with the Vice-Chancellor. In light of the public accusations that Massey University is not committed to the Principle of Free Speech, I asked to meet with the Vice-Chancellor in my capacity as Chair of Academic Board, to gain reassurances that this is not the case, and to discuss the recent controversy caused by the cancellation of the Don Brash lecture which was to be hosted by the Students Political Club. I did this because I wanted to fully understand the facts of the case and what, if any, impact it might have on the business of the Board. I was not finding the public debate and the emotional speculation on social media and in the press very helpful and needed to know more before I could happily form an opinion.

The Vice-Chancellor agreed to meet me and to answer my questions. She began by assuring me that she was committed to free speech and the notion of the University as well-informed and scholarly, Conscience and Critic of Society.

I asked the Vice-Chancellor how long she had been aware of Dr Brash’s proposed lecture before she took the decision to cancel the lease of the room to the students. She told me that she had been aware of the event for many weeks and had been invited to attend. The students had also informed her that their planned programme of talks would include politicians from all New Zealand’s major political parties.

My understanding from what Professor Thomas told me, is that she had not considered cancelling the event at any point during that period, because she had no pressing reason to do so. She did not deny that she does not agree with Dr Brash’s views, but she pointed out that she had not at any stage banned him from campus nor insisted that the students disinvite him.

Professor Thomas told me that the situation changed when she was shown a thread on social media where there was a discussion of a plan to violently disrupt the talk, making mention of bringing a gun.

There certainly seems to be some discrepancies in what Thomas said publicly and what she discussed with university staff, and what she told the academic board.

What is said in the emails is certainly different to her explanation to Newstalk ZB.

More detail at Kiwiblog: Massey lying over cancellation of Brash speech

Free speech and ‘deplatforming’

‘Deplatforming’ (also known as ‘no platform’)has become a prominent issue in relation to free speech. Definitions.net: “Canceling or disinviting someone to speak at an event” (but ‘no platform’ may also be a means of trying to stop controversial speakers have platforms generally).

Deplatforming is a new term to me, that came up in recent controversies over opposition to allowing Canadians Stefan Molyneux and Lauren Southern speak first at Auckland Council owned venues, and then more generally – the Power Station cancelled an event the afternoon before the duo were due to speak there.

And it also arose when Massey University cancelled a student political event that Don Brash was scheduled to speak at.

It is a big issue in the US:  Attitudes to free speech are changing, and Steve Bannon has something to do with it

Two widely read magazines made two different decisions about Steve Bannon this week. The New Yorker on Monday announced it was disinviting Bannon as a speaker at its October festival, while the London-based Economist on Tuesday defended its decision to keep him on at its own event this month.

The magazines received a torrent of criticism that the media is giving a megaphone to a dangerous white nationalist of waning relevance.

The New Yorker’s editor, David Remnick, went the other way, saying that while he had hoped for “a rigorous interview” onstage with Bannon to challenge his views, he conceded there were better ways to achieve that scrutiny than by giving Bannon yet another platform.

The growing number of these “disinvitations” — many of them at universities in both the US and UK — shows a shift in attitudes to free speech, and even a desire to move its goalposts.

It may not be taking hold in New Zealand after widespread criticism of the Massey banning of Brash. A visit this week by Nigel Farage attracted only minor protests (and scant interest over what he said), and Chelsea Manning was granted a visa to come and speak here despite her criminal record.

What some people pointed out to the New Yorker about Bannon was that his presence at the festival was not just a matter of the freedom to express one’s views. It was also about his track record in distributing false information through Breitbart, the website he co-founded in 2007.

Breitbart has run stories that support climate change denial, despite overwhelming scientific evidence that it’s real. It has also run stories alleging the Obama administration was supporting al Qaeda in Iraq, an accusation that has no basis in fact.

It gets quite contentious when known perpetrators of ‘fake news’ are involved. Major online platforms have recently restricted Alex Jones from using their platforms. Facebook, Twitter and others have enormous power over speech and have been under pressure to clamp down on being exploited by activists deliberately spreading false news, especially where foreign countries try to influence elections.

But what if Donald Trump had the power to shut down platforms that he claims spread fake news about him?

A claim of ‘fake news’ does not mean the news is fake, with people like Trump it is synonymous with  ‘news I don’t like’, or critical commentary.

Attitudes to free speech depend on age. Forty percent of millennials in the US — where free speech is enshrined in its constitution — think the government should be able to prevent people from saying things that offend minority groups, according to a survey by the Pew Research Center. That drops to 27% among generation X respondents, 24% among baby boomers and just 12% for “silent generation Americans,” aged 73 to 90.

It is quite alarming to see as many as 40% of a younger age group want their government to prevent speech that they think is (or may be) offensive to someone. Is that a sign of where ‘free speech’ is going to go?

Inciting hatred with speech is illegal in some parts of the world, and privacy can also place limitations on what you say.

Some millennials say they want to see these restrictions widen. This desire is most visible in the growing number of “no-platforming” cases at universities, where people are denied invitations to speak, or their invitations are rescinded.

In the UK, radical feminists with views that students consider transphobic have been no-platformed.

Free speech versus ‘safe spaces’

Shakira Martin, president of the UK’s National Union of Students (NUS), said students valued free speech, but stressed that freedom must be balanced with creating safe spaces, particularly for minority groups.

The problem with free speech as we know it is that the playing field is uneven, she said, with some groups given the opportunity to shout louder than others.

“So many of the misunderstood and maligned practices that students have deployed to readdress that balance, such as safe space, are actually about extending free speech to those groups whose voices may not have been traditionally heard,” she told CNN.

‘Safe spaces’ is a very contentious thing. There are a real risk that rules enforcing ‘non-offensive speech’ will neuter free speech.

This is especially a problem in politics, where opponents can claim offence to try to shut down views they are ‘offended’ by – which in reality is often just political ideas and policies they disagree with.

Evening the free speech playing field is also highly contentious. Who gets to decide what is even? How can you rule on evenness before the event, before someone has spoken?

Brash was effectively banned by Massey based on anticipation of what he might say. Some claimed he had had ample speech platforms in the past, had offended some people some of the time, so should be deplatformed.

I have seen people online claiming things like white males should shut up because white males had dominated power and speech in the past and now it was the turn for other groups to have the power and the platforms.

Free speech won’t be balanced by shutting up some groups, by censoring some. It will be enhanced by encouraging and enabling a wider range of speakers and views and politics.

You can’t improve inclusiveness through exclusive rules and pressures.

The debate leaves universities with a difficult balancing act. The UK’s Department of Education is working on creating a clearer set of rules for universities to follow.

In May, Minister for Higher Education Sam Gyimah described the restrictions of free speech at universities as “chilling.” His predecessor, Jo Johnson, said universities should be fined for banning speakers.

Fining universities who don’t comply with no-ban rules sounds like a silly idea to me. Apart from it being a bad approach it would be to easily open to abuse.

Free speech in the digital age

It may not be surprising that a generation that grew up with the internet and social media has different ideas on free speech.

Social media was once hailed as the savior of free speech, offering a platform for marginalized voices. That’s still true, but with it has come more hate speech.

The Internet has enabled as many problems as solutions for free speech.

Laws around the world have not kept up with this major change in the way we communicate, according to Monica Horten, an expert on internet governance policy. At the heart of the problem is scale.

“What you’ve got now are millions of pieces of content going up online by individual people, and that immediately alters the scale of the problem, because the percentage of the content seen as problematic is going to be higher,” Horten told CNN.

After years of backlash from their own users, social media platforms, including Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, are now regulating problematic content, such as fake news. But that poses its own set of problems, Horten said.

“The whole question of whether private actors should be able to make these kinds of decisions — governments are asking private companies that run these platforms to make decisions about which content should be removed — they are acting as censors and not always within the law.”

Private companies controlling online speech have enormous power of enabling speech, restricting it and censoring it.

Kate O’Regan, director of the Bonavero Institute of Human Rights at the University of Oxford, agreed that the world was still grappling with how to legislate online content, but said she was concerned at the changing attitudes to free speech.

“I understand people who don’t want to share a platform (with Steve Bannon) — they have the right to make those decisions. But at the end of the day we have to debate the ideas and let that conversation take place,” she said.

“I do think democracy by definition are places where we must allow deep-seated disagreements to be aired and they should be done in a civil manner.”

That highlights some major problems that aren’t easily resolved.

I have found from experience on a range of online forums, especially in the seven years I have been running Your NZ, that the only way of allowing deep-seated disagreements to be aired (that is one of the primary aims of Your NZ) in a civil manner is by human intervention, and that is an ongoing challenge as spats and attacks keep erupting.

I think I have proven that it can be sort of be managed ok, on a tiny scale.

I don’t know how this can be done effectively on a large scale let alone a world wide web scale. Too few people have the inclination or balance, and far too many people want to deliberately upset the balance and upset opponents.

Massey vice chancellor Jan Thomas tries to explain Brash ban

After controversially barred Don Brash yesterday from speaking by cancelling a student political society event at Massey University, vice Chancellor Jan Thomas tried to explain this in an interview on Newstalk ZB.

Massey University defends barring Don Brash

Larry Williams: What were the reasons for cancelling?

Jan Thomas: The reason we cancelled was because the students who had booked the venue and had agreed to terms of use had come to us and identified their concerns around their ability to maintain security at the event, and so on the basis of that we took another look at things and based on some things we were observing on social media I became concerned that there was a genuine threat to the safety of our staff and students and members of the public.

And so unfortunately it’s a really tough decision and I don’t like making these decisions but based on the safety of our community I chose to cancel the event.

Larry Williams: Was this more about your personal views though, you don’t like Dr Brash?

Jan Thomas: Ah, I made the decision on the basis of the safety of our staff. In fact the venue had been booked um for some time and the students association, the politics society, had done a terrific job of setting up a programme of speakers who were going to be discussing their particular perspectives on politics. That of course is the mandate of the student association and I supported that and that had all gone through the normal processes.

So he would have spoken along with other current and future leaders of ah the National Party in a sequence of talks past current and future, ah and ah I think that was, these are precisely the sorts of things that should and do happen on university campuses, and it wasn’t until we became aware of ah concerns around security ah that I made a really difficult decision to cancel the event.

Larry Williams: Yes but you’ve also referenced Dr Brash as a hate speaker, with respect.

Jan Thomas: Ah, I don’t think um that I have referenced that as bluntly as that. What I have said was that ah there was an event held in ah the Manawatu here on our campus, ah from ah Hobson’s Pledge ah which ah was particularly offensive for ah particularly our Maori staff, and ah that is not the sort of thing that I would like to see at a university campus. Um that wasn’t ah Dr Brash speaking, um it was around ah Hobson’s Pledge that particular time.

So those sorts of events are events ah where the discussion um moves from being one ah of talking about ah the issues and evidence based ah good rational debate where people are able to speak about um their perspectives on a whole range of different things.

Larry Williams: yes but you’re shutting that down aren’t you? Ah you know being against race based seats on a council is not akin to hate speech.

Jan Thomas: Ah no um and that is indeed a personal political perspective that I have no question, no problem with…

Larry Williams: It’s called democracy.

Jan Thomas: What I do object to is where um speech that demeans or humiliates or silences groups of people based on a common trait. Ah in other words playing the man and not the ball, ah is ah is something that we don’t accept on a university campus, that everyone should feel that they can express their views in a way that is not um going to be subject to being demeaned or humiliated.

Larry Williams: Well everybody except Don Brash.

Jan Thomas: Um ah well as I said we cancelled this event on the basis of security, ah security concerns um and ah it wouldn’t matter who was speaking. If I have concerns over the safety of our community I would consider ah cancelling events as well because I cannot put at risk ah my staff, students and ah members of the community.

Larry Williams: So who were the threats coming from, where were the threats, what were the threats?

Jan Thomas: Ah well the threats were um coming from um you know a discussion that was happening in social media channels, um and I I do want to say that um I think for universities ah we do have to be particularly careful about these things. There have been some really horrible events happening on university campuses around the world violent things, ah and I we never see that in New Zealand, ah however um I and so I’m very watchful for anything that might ah put at risk our ah safety on campus…

Larry Williams: If it’s threats and it’s violence you’re concerned about, you you you have cowered to the threats, haven’t you. What about the police? Did you call the police in?

Jan Thomas: Um well our um staff are in contact with the police. That’s true. And I guess that was part of the difficult decision, do you completely um ah ah a-a-ah you know ramp up ah significant ah security or do you not. And these are some of the things that we thought about  and talked about and I made the decision that I would cancel the event.

Larry Williams: Yes but it’s hard to come to the conclusion that you cancelled this on security grounds, I mean you also referenced Brash’s support for the Canadians Southern and Molyneux, ah all his support was that he supports free speech along with a raft of other academics both right and left. He didn’t support their views, he supports free speech.

Jan Thomas: Sure.

Larry Williams: But you referenced that as well.

Jan Thomas: Um[or ‘and’]

Larry Williams: You referenced the Canadians as well.

Jan Thomas: Mhm.

Larry Williams: Meaning that the possibility here is the real reason for cancelling this is because you don’t like Dr Brash and what he stands for, what he says.

Jan Thomas: Well we cancelled the event on the basis of our concerns for security. I guess um ah ah um we also have a view that ah hate speech is not acceptable on campus, and I think what you’re doing here is linking those two things quite quite clearly, and um ah you know I do stand by my ah perspectives that hate speech is not welcome on campus, um, and neither is ah ah when there are concerns about security of our community. I will um act in the best interests of our broader community.

Larry Williams: Well again who said Dr Brash was going to be involved in hate speech, where I mean where are the examples of the hate speech?

Jan Thomas: Ah well I I am quite sure that Dr Brash would have done what he was invited to speak on and that was his experience as his leader of the National Party, um and…

Larry Williams: Exactly.

Jan Thomas: Yeh.

Larry Williams: You see this is the university’s politics society. Brash is a former opposi…this is what you do. political views. You debate them.

Jan Thomas: I agree. And as I said, this is the mandate of the students’ politics society, entirely appropriate. And the students’ society has acted in exactly the right way, doing doing having these sorts of events ah to raise awareness of different political spectrum…

Larry Williams: Yeah I mean universities are meant to be the bastion of free speech, vice chancellor.

Jan Thomas: And we support free speech, ah but when it um it leans into hate speech where people are being ah damaged as a result of am…

Larry Williams: What do you mean damaged? I mean previously you’ve said at that um free speech is being a tool of colonialism and must be restricted. Where is the hate coming in all of this?

Jan Thomas:  …uuuum, so I I I feel we’re blurring the issues here, that there is ah we cancelled this event because of security concerns. I also am quite happy to stand behind my comments that hate speech is not welcome on campus, and the way I would consider hate speech is ah when hate speech might demean or humiliate or silence groups of people based on a common trait, whether it be sexuality or religion or race or whatever, um because ah that is essentially ah the same as bullying of a larger group of people, and we don’t tolerate  bullying in the playground do we…

Larry Williams: Yeah well ok there’s no evidence that Dr Brash was bullying anybody. I mean even the Prime Minister is saying this is an overreaction. What’s your take on that?

Jan Thomas: Ah yes and I’ve heard her say that and um that is her view but as the um vice chancellor of this university I made a decision, ah on the basis of the safety for my ah the community that ah come onto this campus, and I take that responsibility very very seriously.

 

Massey’s Brash ban may help free speech

There were very mixed views over Molynuex and Southern coming to New Zealand trying to claim that free speech meant they should be given speaking platforms. Molyneux in particular promotes some fairly objectional views, and it looks like they provoke criticism and attract attention to make money.

But 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 seems a bit vague about exactly by his was deemed that objectionable that he should be kept away – he had been invited to talk about his experience as Leader of the Opposition (he wasn’t far away from becoming Prime Minister).

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.

Universities were supposed to be bastions of free speech in the past, but overseas they have increasingly tried to restrict what students could listen to on campus. Some claim that universities should be ‘safe places’ for minorities – but selective censorship means that it can become unsafe to speak openly in case it is deemed ‘unsafe’ for someone else.

As well as there being a problem with university vice chancellors or whoever has the power to censor, a major problem that arose over the Molyneux/Southern visit has become a major concern, where one or a few nutters can simply threaten or imply a risk of violence to get authorities to shut down speech they don’t want for any reason.

The Brash ban is so ridiculous that if the precedent becomes an established norm it could be that no politician or ex-politician would be exempt from exclusion. Just about every politician is ‘hated’ or opposed by someone.

Hopefully the Massey overstep will prompt some serious discussion and some sensible solutions, or at lest far better guidelines, about what sort of speech should be ruled out,.

Free speech at universities, unless someone says they hate it

Free speech versus hate speech discussions continue, with the Vice-Chancellor of Massey University joining with a promotion of free speech at universities – as long as it isn’t deemed hate speech.

A key question that again isn’t answered – who gets to decide what should be banned as hate speech, and who gets to decide who might say something at some future event that someone else may claim is hate speech?

Professor Jan Thomas (NZH): Free speech is welcome at universities, hate speech is not

An “alt right” speaking event in Auckland has been cancelled after Mayor Phil Goff made it clear the two speakers, Lauren Southern and Stefan Molyneux, were not welcome and the council would not provide a venue for “hate speech” by people who sought to abuse and insult others.

While I support Mr Goff’s decision, it has kicked off a tide of controversy and has again raised the issue of what differentiates free speech from hate speech.

Issues such as this are increasingly common in New Zealand. Last year a group of high-profile New Zealanders put their names to a statement supporting free speech on New Zealand university campuses.

The open letter warned that freedom of speech was under threat at our universities following the demise of a student group promoting white supremacist beliefs.

If anything threats to free speech have become more pronounced since then.

Let me be clear, hate speech is not free speech. Moreover, as Moana Jackson has eloquently argued, free speech has, especially in colonial societies, long been mobilised as a vehicle for racist comments, judgements and practices.

She is not clear at all about what could constitute ‘hate speech’.

How racist could speech be before it is deemed hateful enough to ban?

Hate speech is repugnant, or as one American legal academic has stated, hate speech is “a rape of human dignity”.

Some hate speech can be repugnant to most people, but no clear line can be drawn between hateful and simply hated, or disliked.

Hate speech should be called out for what it is, especially when it incites violence against minorities.

I think that the law covers inciting violence, in theory at least. But again, it’s difficult to pin down what exactly ‘hate speech’ is.

Beyond the reach of the law, however, the battle against hate speech is fought most effectively through education and courageous leadership, rather than through suppression or legal censure.

Yes, to an extent. It is probably better fought by the weight of condemnation from many people. But that can only be done if the hate speakers are allowed to speak in public in the first place.

And this is where universities can take positive action by providing a venue for reasoned discussion and cogent argument.

After all, the Education Act 1989 compels us to act as “critic and conscience” of society.

This does not just mean protecting the values of academic freedom, it also means standing up for what is right.

Standing up for the freedom to speak, even if some people may not like or agree with what is said, is the right thing to do, isn’t it?

Academics have a responsibility to engage with the communities we serve, to correct error and prejudice and to offer expert views, informed by evidence, reason and well-informed argument.

Speech correctors? By all means speak against crap speech, but not by becoming the speech police.

Academics are not the only ones who can provide expert views, informed by evidence, reason and well-informed argument. And they are also susceptible to being unreasonable, ill-informed poor arguers.

Given the current dominance of wall-to-wall social media and the echo chambers of fake news, universities are in many ways obliged to make positive societal interventions.

Interventions? Sure, any positive input into discussions should be welcomed, but becoming arbiters of what is positive and what is negative, and what is valid discussion versus what is what could be hated or damaging, and what is good to go and what should be banned, is a very tricky thing for university academics to get too involved in.

In this regard, I am guided by the University of California’s former President Clark Kerr’s oft-cited maxim that “the role of universities is not to make ideas safe for students, but to make students safe for ideas”.

That could be interpreted in different ways. When does edgy commentary and debate become unsafe for students?

Public universities have an obligation to uphold our civic leadership role in society and our first responsibility, I would argue, is to do no harm.

Being too heavy handed on what constitutes safe or reasonable speech has the potential to do a lot of harm.

Universities are characterised by the academic values of tolerance, civility, and respect for human dignity.

They may be a self characterisation, but somewhat idealistic and superior.

And that is why it is important to identify and call out any shift from free speech towards hate speech. The challenge we face is to clarify when that shift occurs and to counter it with reason and compassion.

Speaking up against speech you disagree with or dislike is good.

Hate speech has no place at a university.

Any sort of definition is still absent from the discussion.

I have some concerns about what the Vice-Chancellor of Massey University seems to be angling at.

We should be debating  free speech versus hate speech.

But there are signs of major problems and difficulties, where hate speech is often no more than a subjective view on hating what someone says (or could say). Or increasingly, deciding that others might hate what is said or could be said.

Whatever hate is. It is a grossly overused word. It’s common to hear people say they hate all sorts of trivial things.

And protecting free speech is not a trivial thing.

 

Quote of the year finalists

Massey University’s NZ Quote of the Year 2017 finalists:

Vote here.

Thanks for the link Duncan.