Censorship on campus – academic freedom bill is voted down by MPs who fear exposure to some ideas can be damaging to our health

Labour MP Jo Luxton – in a Parliamentary speech about academic freedom in this country – referred to the recent shooting in the United States by a young person who had been “radicalised and emboldened” by the mosque attacks in Christchurch a few years ago.

These were actions based on hate for someone of a different race or religion.

She referred, too, to the 23-day occupation of the grounds of Parliament by protesters earlier this year.

“Our place, the people’s place, was desecrated while people had a platform to spread their mis- and disinformation, where they spoke about freedom, freedom of speech, and they also spoke about hate.”

In defence of censorship on campus, in effect, she said she wanted her children to go out and explore the world and to attend university and other learning institutions.

“But I want to know they are as safe as possible while they do so. I can’t tag along to uni with them too, so, as parents, we put a lot of trust in those places—that they will do all that they can to keep our children safe, and that means minimising the risk of mental harm, minimising the risk of physical harm, which they are obliged to do under the Health and Safety at Work Act 2015.

“This proposed piece of legislation takes that away.

Hence she opposed a private member’s bill intended to enhance the right to freedom of expression within our universities. 

Fellow Labour MPs, along with Greens and the Maori Party, similarly opposed ACT MP James McDowall’s Education and Training (Freedom of Expression) Amendment Bill based on concerns about what some people might say and how other people might be upset.

Their arguments ominously portended a significant constraining of what we will be able to think and say if they get to decide the contents of “hate-speech” legislation.

They decried McDowall’s bill as a vehicle to amplify hate speech rather than to crimp the powers of university authorities to decide who may speak on campus.

But the only news media mention of the proposed legislation and the debate that Point of Order could find was in a prescient RNZ From The House report on 17 May:

“It seems unlikely that this bill will progress to committee.”

Speaking to his bill, McDowall said freedom of speech and academic freedom were distinct concepts.

Freedom of speech enabled the expression of one’s thoughts without restriction, so long as others were not harmed or violence incited. Academic freedom, on the other hand, was

“..the ability of academics and students to question ideas and to put forward new ones without being censored, or, worse, risking your career or enrolment status. For academics, it is crucial that they are able to teach and undertake research that challenges the status quo, even if it’s a bit unorthodox if they choose to do so.”

McDowall described universities as centres of inquiry and intellectual debate (“most of the time”), by which new ideas are brought to life and tested.

Virtually every scientific breakthrough and accomplishment throughout history had pushed the boundaries of their times, often inviting criticisms from academic institutions as immoral and offensive but now accepted as fact.

His bill would require tertiary institutions to protect freedom of expression and enable them to issue codes of practice set out in procedures that students and staff should follow to uphold freedom of expression.

Universities would need to take responsibility to maintain lawful freedom of speech for their faculty, students, and visiting speakers.

McDowall mentioned Massey University’s policy whereby speakers might be de-platformed or events cancelled to safeguard students from mental harm.

He described this as entirely open-ended and subjective, resulting in an informal behind-closed-doors process.

“Taxpayer-funded institutions, through their management, should not be forcing whatever world view they have and that they possess on students, using dubious claims to do so.”

McDowall also referenced the recent survey conducted by Curia Market Research on behalf of the Free Speech Union. This gathered more than 1,200 responses from university-employed academics.

Almost half of the respondents felt constrained to raise differing perspectives and to argue against the consensus, and even more so in discussing the Treaty of Waitangi.

If academics felt unable to speak out on an issue, students’ ability to engage in critical thinking would be diminished, McDowall contended.

“Universities should be environments of genuine diversity and open debate, with the free exchange and exploration of ideas without fear, yet the survey demonstrates that there is fear and it is only getting worse.

“If we do not confront these issues, we risk not only losing our freedom but also our problem-solving abilities. It is frankly disappointing that we are even here debating this issue in 21st century New Zealand. In a healthy culture, people are allowed to say unpopular things.”

But the Speak Up For Women group repeatedly was being shut down, Don Brash had been barred from speaking at Massey University, posters at Massey University supporting the Hong Kong protests had been torn down, and Auckland University of Technology had scrapped Tiananmen Square commemorations after the Chinese Government officials intervened.

Threats to free speech were not limited to university campuses, McDowall acknowledged, but his bill was

“… a positive step to mitigate the growing phenomenon of woke cancel culture in places of learning where open debate should be protected and encouraged”.

But Jo Luxton said there was no way tertiary institutions should lose the rights to decide who speaks on campus

“I don’t support a bill that wants to financially penalise tertiary education institutions for not exposing people to harmful hate speech and in turn penalising the students by withholding or removing funding.”

Shanan Halbert (Labour MP for Northcote) noted Pink Shirt Day was about to be celebrated and the previous day flags had been raised in the front of Parliament to celebrate and recognise the International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia, Intersexism, and Transphobia.

“And when we talk about freedom of speech, freedom for who? For those that are transphobic? For those that are homophobic? Are those the people that you want to speak on university campuses? Are they the racists that you want to have the right to speak on our university campuses? Are those the people that you are putting forward in support of this particular bill? I throw you that question, and I ask you to consider that this coming Friday on Pink Shirt Day.”

He insisted the bill would enable people to promote ideas and discussions that hurt other people.

His party colleague, list MP Angela Roberts,  in her speech cited the New Zealand Bill of Rights, the Human Rights Act and the Education and Training Act and said New Zealand already had more than one law protecting freedom of speech and academic freedom.

The danger in taking away institutions’ right to regulate who could speak was that

“…  when we shift from dissenting views that are based on evidence and based on science and academic rigour, and we shift into views that are opinions that are based on falsehoods, demonstrable misinformation, what that does is it actually undermines performing a role as critic and conscience of society.

“What happens is, we’re reducing the independence of our institutions to do what is best for academics, for their students, and for their staff.

“We should be trusting them …  They should be entitled to absolutely be trusted to make sure that science has space to breathe.”

And:

“What this does is it impacts on the freedom of our institutions to do what is right, to make sure that we have a safe space for science and for evidence and for progress. There is a really, really good reason why we trust our institutions to bring true academic rigour to their spaces.”

Tell that to the seven academics who became embroiled in controversy over the issue of whether matauranga Maori was science.

Roberts brought the mental health of students and academic staff into considerations, too, saying universities should be free to judge what must be done to keep people safe under the Health and Safety at Work Act.

“By giving visitors more voice, some students and staff may actually feel unsafe, and it actually might reduce the academic rigour that we require,” she contended.

“I don’t know how long it’s been since you’ve walked on to a campus and had a good debate with your lecturer. Some of us have done it as recently as last week, and it’s wonderful to be in that space where you feel safe to really, really challenge the science—not the misinformation, not the baiting, but the discipline about academic rigour. It’s a beautiful place to be…”

McDowall’s bill would limit an institution’s obligation to protect that space.

“The ability for visitors to have a greater right to bring misinformation—to bring viewpoints that actually undermine science—isn’t helpful… 

“It can constrain true academic rigour and debate, and it can impact on a prospective learning decision to study in a particular field.

“We should be making institutions safe places for academic rigour, not places where we bring in misinformation and it gets the same status. This bill actually stops institutions from making a solid academic response that’s well-rounded and in the best interests of their workers, their students, their academics, and of course, because they challenge us to be better for all of us.”

Green MP Chloe Swarbrick said Parliament had to provide the balance when rights outlined in the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act rubbed up against each other—such as freedom of movement, freedom from discrimination, or freedom from unreasonable search and seizure.

Every day there was a balancing of rights that should not be bound by prescriptive laws.

She cited ACT supporting safe zones around abortion clinics, striking an appropriate balance of the rights to protect women seeking abortions against the rights of protesters harassing them in the vicinity of those clinics.

Swarbrick said McDowall’s bill removed this balance by requiring universities to discard any considerations of the health and safety for workers, visitors, and students,

“… to give privilege to whoever wants to come on to a campus and say whatever they want to say.

“Of course, that could just be spoken word poetry, or it could be to blurt out incessant white noise, or it could be to recruit members for a violent and perhaps bloody coup… “

Simon O’Connor, National’s MP for Tāmaki, countered :

“The whole point of freedom of speech is not for the speech we agree with; it’s the speech we don’t, and, unfortunately, our universities have been captured by a bunch of left-wing progressives.”

He referenced te Auckland University of Technology decision to ban a group of women from talking about women’s rights

“Amd not only that; they were abused, they were given hateful speech, they were harassed, and they were bullied from people who called them inclusion officers—from academics. It’s an absolute disgrace.”

This had nothing to do with freedom of speech.

“It’s all about control. You will only be allowed to think, say, and preach what they believe in. That is autocracy, that is a totalitarian mindset, and it infects like a virus our universities.”

The bill was voted down by 77 votes (Labour, Greens and Maori Party) to 42 (National and ACT).

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