Your student president has pulled out of a “free speech panel” hosted by the Free Speech Union (FSU) on 17 August, citing “pressing work and study commitments”. The FSU has previously faced controversy for promoting and platforming views critics say are “extremist, trans-exclusionary, homophobic and racist”.
The FSU’s upcoming event, called “Responsible politics and free speech”, is being held at Otago Uni, in a location yet to be decided. They say that the events, one of several held on university campuses across Aotearoa, are intended to “open up contentious subjects to debate and discussion”.
The group professes to offer representatives from all across the political spectrum, but the upcoming Otago panel features National MP Michael Woodhouse, ACT MP Dr. James McDowall, local Councillor Lee Vandervis, and OUSA President Melissa Lama. The panel discussion is also being moderated by broadcaster Peter Williams, a board member at the right-wing Taxpayers’ Union. Now, without Melissa providing the (presumably-leftist) student voice, the panel seems to be politically veering strongly to the right.
The panel organisers have apparently attempted to fix this, reaching out to Generation Vote Otago (GVO) in an attempt to replace Melissa. A GVO spokesperson confirmed that they had received an invite from FSU, but declined to attend, saying that “a non-partisan civics education group was perhaps not quite the student representative they were looking for, and that a discussion like this is outside of our remit.” While the FSU responded by saying that they, too, were non-partisan, GVO was firm on their refusal, saying that “this update regarding FSU's non-partisan nature will not make us reconsider.”
The FSU was formed in 2018 after public pressure forced the cancellation of an event in Auckland by Canadian far-right white supremacists Stefan Molyneux and Lauren Southern. Mayor Phil Goff said at the time that they were “not welcome to use city-owned venues to stir up ethnic or religious tensions”. In response, the FSU unsuccessfully took Auckland Council to court twice about the cancellation.
In May, they hosted a similar panel at Victoria Uni, aiming to create “freedom cancel culture.” Salient, Victoria Uni’s student magazine, reported that at the event, speaker Karl Du Fresne called the Black Lives Matter movement a “crusade,” made “derogatory comments about trans women” and “spread harmful misinformation about the terror attacks in Christchurch”. At the time, the Vic Uni’s student assoc (VUWSA) Engagement VP, Katherine Blow, told Salient that “VUWSA does not support the FSU event, because the group is known for their extremist, trans-exclusionary, homophobic and racist views,” adding that “ideally, the event wouldn’t have taken place."