Image of girl with duct tape over her mouth to suggest her speech is being censored - Photo by Brian Wangenheim on Unsplash
Photo by Brian Wangenheim on Unsplash

OPINION: Why we need to defend academic freedom and freedom of speech

Opinion 26/10/2021

OPINION: As a second-year student at the University of Waikato in 2007, I was excited to learn that then-Prime Minister Helen Clark was going to deliver a speech followed by a Q&A session on campus. 

I wasn’t excited because I was a fan of her Government’s policies or even a swing voter, quite the opposite. As a card-carrying member of ACT I had no doubt as to which party I was going to vote for in the 2008 general election. 

Rather it was because it meant that I could go, in person, to hear the political views of someone famous who I disagreed with, and if I got the chance, air out some of my views during the Q&A. 

A room full of students listened, we asked some questions, it was an enjoyable exchange (including the differences of opinion), and we learned more about her as a person than was possible through headlines and soundbites. 

I would never have dreamed of running to the Vice-Chancellor beforehand to ask them to cancel the event because her presence would upset or offend me. In any case, that sort of thing was unheard of in 2007… and no one used Twitter in those days. 

The moral of this short story is, if someone you disagree with has been invited to give a speech at a taxpayer-funded institution, either step up to the challenge and attend – you’ll probably learn something – or simply don’t attend. You won’t learn anything by doing the latter, nor will you be able to voice your own opinions in person, but at least you’ll feel good about your boycott.

Last week my Member’s Bill was drawn from the biscuit tin in Parliament: The Education and Training (Freedom of Expression) Amendment Bill. My Bill ensures tertiary institutions are required to defend and not inhibit the rights of all speakers, faculty, and students to have their voices heard, no matter how controversial they may seem. 

Institutions would no longer be able to rely on dubious health and safety policies to shut down events, otherwise their taxpayer funding will be put at risk.

Some people who want censorship say it’s because speech can cause or encourage violence. They can relax. The Crimes Act already says it’s an offence to incite lawbreaking. It’s ok to have a rally at Aotea Square and say ‘the rich are leeching off us’. That’s free speech. It’s not ok to say ‘let’s go up to Remuera and burn down their houses’. That’s incitement. It’s been settled law for a long time.

It is crucial that tertiary institutions foster an environment where students and faculty can engage deeply with a variety of opinions and exercise their right to have their voices heard. 

Confronting different opinions will help those involved to grow and learn, often outside of their comfort zones, and if an opinion is genuinely outrageous it should be called out by better arguments. The opinion-holder may walk away embarrassed and with a little less dignity, but that’s the point. 

Does this mean we should support someone’s right to speak who has gone a little too far down the anti-vaccine rabbit hole? Yes. Do you have to agree with their views? No. In fact, you would be quite justified in finding them ridiculous.

Sadly, these days it would hardly surprise anyone to learn that a speaker had been disinvited, de-platformed, all because a small, but vocal group of people claimed offence or emotional harm. 

As someone once said to ACT leader David Seymour, “this is supposed to be a time of enlightenment, but you have to walk on eggshells with everything you say.”

We do not want to get to a point at which Universities are a place where ideas go to die. 

It is important to state that the right to free speech should be viewed as politically neutral, and not as giving one group an advantage over another. 

While it is often pursued contemporarily by parties on the right, it was originally a bastion of the left. Feminists or anti-Springbok tour protestors alike would not have been as successful as they were without having the ability to make unpopular statements. 

Also remember New Zealand’s proud history of becoming the first country in the world to implement universal suffrage, when Parliament passed the 1893 Electoral Act giving women the vote. Just imagine if Kate Sheppard was de-platformed at every turn.

At the end of the day, policies and laws that restrict free speech affect everyone the same, and one day they might just be used to silence you. 

You never know, in future they may be abused by a government or institution that wishes to clamp down on the rights and freedoms that our parents and ancestors fought hard for, winding back the clock on our socially progressive success stories in the process. 

A free and open society relies on liberal education, founded on the principle of free speech. 

My Bill holds universities and other tertiary institutions to account by sending them a clear message: if you give into cancel culture and willingly facilitate a chilling effect on speech, you might want to look for funding elsewhere. 

Whether it’s groups like ‘Speak Up For Women’, Don Brash (who by the way is now a trustee of a Mongrel Mob-led initiative to support people into higher education and trades), or the ‘New Communist Party of Aotearoa’ (yes, a real thing), they should be allowed the opportunity to have themselves heard, especially at taxpayer-funded institutions. 

 This oped was written by ACT MP Dr James McDowall

James has owned several small businesses and currently co-owns an immigration law firm. Prior to entering Parliament, he worked for a large NGO in the mental health sector. He has a young, multicultural family and is based in the Waikato.


ACT MP Dr James McDowall