University postpones free speech event, over free speech concerns

Debate over how to handle polarised issues considered too polarising by students

May 1, 2024
 A microphone is covered from the rain pitchside to illustrate University postpones free speech event, over free speech concerns
Source: Stuart MacFarlane/Arsenal FC/Getty Images

The postponement of a panel discussion about free speech has illustrated the challenge confronting New Zealand universities, whose funding may be withdrawn over perceived failures on the issue.

Victoria University of Wellington (VUW) vice-chancellor Nic Smith said the event, which had been planned for 29 April and attracted more than 600 registrations, had been rescheduled for late May after a student backlash made the “scheduling…too difficult”.

Professor Smith told Newstalk ZB radio that he had planned a “respectful, evidence-based conversation” among panellists with different views. “I can’t do that unless I get the right voices around the table,” he said.

“How has our society got to the point that we’re not resilient enough to be able to listen to ideas that we might fundamentally…reject?”

Students had objected to the “polarising panel” primarily because it included Free Speech Union (FSU) chief executive Jonathan Ayling, whose organisation had promoted events featuring “hate speech”, according to students’ association president Marcail Parkinson.

“We wanted to make sure that…the points being put across weren’t promoting any disinformation,” she told Newstalk. Students would have been unable to avoid the debate venue’s “central” location “if they didn’t feel comfortable being around” the debaters, she added.

Mr Ayling said he had defended the speech rights of people considered by others to have expressed hate. “If it’s scandalous…to claim that universities need to sponsor open and rigorous debate, I’m not really sure what the purpose of a university is any more,” he told Times Higher Education.  

The FSU has vowed to organise its own debate on campus if the event does not proceed as originally planned.

The Act Party, a junior member of the governing coalition, has pledged to force tertiary education providers that receive taxpayer funding to “commit to a free speech policy”. In a February editorial, Professor Smith said universities should not be obliged to accommodate “anyone who wants to speak on campus”.

Such an interpretation would “diminish our capacity for people to…discuss conflicting ideas”, he warned.

In a responding editorial, Mr Ayling said academics rather than administrators should be gatekeepers of free expression. “It’s the role of academics that really makes academic freedom important, not the vice-chancellors and not the non-academic staff,” he told THE.

Professor Smith said topics such as Gaza, gender identity, the Treaty of Waitangi and relations with China had become so polarised that people were withdrawing from debates where “nuance or context” were considered “anathema”.

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He said that under principles being developed at VUW, discussion at the university must be respectful, must critique ideas rather than their advocates, must be evidence-based and must acknowledge that participants were free to change their minds.

While acknowledging “value judgements” in all of these parameters, he said they were useful ground rules. “If it is framed as part of a discussion in the spirit of increasing understanding, then anybody should be able to say almost anything. That’s my view. And I would stand behind anybody in my university saying almost anything if those criteria are met.

“What I can’t defend is people who…resort to the same tactics [used by] the trolls of social media.”

Mr Ayling said the principles “contain some strong references to academic freedom, but also undermine those very references with vague conditions and material that will likely be used against academics seeking to sponsor contentious debate”.

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Reader's comments (1)

Yes, universities can be too "woke" and "politically correct" for their own good, but at the same time the innocuous-sounding Free Speech Union is in many respects an actor in the culture wars of a kind now besetting American campuses. US congressional hearings have cleverly skewered high-status university names with resignations and daft decisions (such as bringing in the police) that only raise the temperature. Yes, there is a real debate to be had here, but let us not fool ourselves about the potential political agenda here - which is to set the campuses alight and embarrass the presumed "liberal elite". We are not close to the excesses of the US, but I think the Vice Chancellor at Victoria University Wellington was right to tread cautiously here.