David Seymour: Universities should protect speech, not feelings

Opinion 22/11/2019

By David Seymour, ACT Party Leader, MP for Epsom.

Who would have thought that, in 2019, an MP would need to provide sanctuary at Parliament to a group wishing to host a discussion about feminism?

It would have been difficult to imagine just a couple of years ago, but that is what happened when I hosted Speak Up For Women’s Feminism 2020 event last week.

We got here because universities are now protecting feelings, rather than speech.

There is a growing danger of taxpayer-funded universities abusing their health and safety obligations in order to ‘deplatform’ speakers whom small groups of vocal activists find controversial.

This year, Massey University cancelled former ACT Leader and Reserve Bank Governor Don Brash who was there to talk about his time as the Leader of the Opposition. Massey staff have torn down pro-Hong Kong democracy posters. It cancelled Feminism 2020 because trans activists demanded the mental wellbeing of students be protected.

Massey is the most egregious example when it comes to shutting down debate and free speech on campus. But we are seeing similar sentiment at other universities.

Activists at Auckland University have argued that “hate speech” directed at marginalised groups leads directly to physical violence against the same groups. Therefore, if a university prioritises free speech by refusing to block controversial speakers, this is actually a form of action because it allows harm and oppression to flourish.

Thankfully, administrators at Auckland have taken a more enlightened approach to freedom of expression.

Massey’s new free speech policy allows it to cancel speakers if there is a chance of ‘mental harm to students’. But mental harm is deeply subjective and allows a small number of activists to block events from taking place by claiming that students are likely to be psychologically hurt by the presence of a speaker on campus.

Mental wellbeing has now become an excuse for universities to cower and cave to activists and shut down controversial speech. We must ask: Does protecting students from offensive or controversial ideas make them more or less mentally resilient in the long term?

It’s not just students that will lose from not being able to hear and debate ideas.

If we prevent ideas from being debated on campus, we will be less able as a society to solve our most pressing problems.

Censorship also has unintended consequences. Once you have a censor – in this case, university administrators – it’s very hard to ensure power isn’t abused. Historically, it has been those on the political left who have been the users and defenders of free speech. Now, it is the left attempting to physically prevent people from speaking. The left might control the censor today, but who is to say that it won’t be used against them in future?

Universities are legally required to protect free speech. The Education Act protects the freedom of academic staff and students to question and test received wisdom and to put forward new ideas and to state controversial or unpopular opinions.

Universities are supposed to be institutions committed to free and open inquiry in all matters and where difficult ideas can be examined. It is not the role of universities to protect students from ideas they find offensive. It is for students to make judgments about which ideas they find disagreeable and to openly and vigorously contest them. Fostering the ability of students to engage in such debate is an essential part of a university’s educational mission.

That is why I have put forward a new member’s bill that would prevent universities that don’t protect free speech from receiving taxpayer funding.

Under the proposal, tertiary institutions such as universities will be legally required to protect academic freedom and free speech on campus or risk losing funding.

Universities are currently required to meet a number of conditions to receive taxpayer money, but protecting academic freedom and freedom of expression is not among them.

Under the legislation ACT is proposing, tertiary institutions will be required to show a practical commitment to upholding academic freedom and free speech, as outlined in a mandatory code of practice, in order to receive funding.

These important public institutions will need to take all reasonable steps to protect academic freedom and free speech, and health and safety will not be allowed to be used as an excuse to ‘deplatform’ speakers unless there are serious threats to physical safety.

Our universities must not follow the path that tertiary institutions in the UK and the US have taken. There, young, idealistic students attempt to scrub institutions clean of any words or ideas that might bring about offence. Lecturers walk on eggshells because they are fearful of student complaints about microagressions. Trigger warnings are used to protect students from mental harm.

By all means, let’s learn to have civil conversations about controversial issues, but physically preventing people from speaking and debating with the ostensible goal of protecting mental health is wrong.

Universities that fail to protect free speech must face the consequences.

David Seymour is Leader of the ACT Party and MP for Epsom.