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.