Academics Issue Open Letter in Defence of Free Speech

Following the closure of the European Students’ Association at the University of Auckland, an open letter has been issued warning that freedom of speech is under threat in the country’s universities. The association were not permitted to recruit during orientation week and subsequently were formally disbanded due to claims of white nationalism and alleged threats of violence. However, the members of the group responded saying that they simply wanted to promote European culture on the university campus, and that their group was open to people of all nationalities and beliefs, rejecting racist and fascist accusations. 

The open letter was the idea of the Auckland University of Technology History Professor Paul Moon and was signed by 27 high-profile New Zealanders, including Dame Tariana Turia. It calls for the defence of freedom of speech and rejects the “forceful silencing of dissenting or unpopular views,” claiming that “freedom of speech underpins our way of life in New Zealand as a liberal democracy”. 

A study taken last year found that more than 90 percent of British universities have been involved in restricting free speech on campuses, with 21 universities found to have banned high profile speakers from attending lectures, speeches or debates purely based on their views. More than 60 percent of universities partake in ‘no-platforming’ whereby student unions or universities actively censor particular ideas, speakers or texts, with specific individuals such as Germaine Greer (author of the Female Eunuch) being prevented from speaking. 

In February this year at the University of California, Berkeley a huge violent protest broke out on campus which resulted in the prevention of a talk by British public speaker, Milo Yiannopoulos – known for his controversial views on transgender individuals, homosexuality and women. Last week a controversial critic of Islam also recently cancelled her event at Auckland University a week before she was due to speak, citing that she was forced to do so due to security concerns, and having received threats of violence. 

Moon’s letter also came in response to the Human Rights Commissioner Dame Susan Devoy calling for a review of the hate speech law, and for it to perhaps be classified as a specific crime. Moon claims the issue remains that we do not know the difference between free speech and hate speech. If an idea or speaker causes someone offense, then it is likely that it will be classified as hate speech. Yet this makes things increasingly dangerous, resulting in individuals being silenced just because people ‘don’t like’ what they have to say. This breeds a culture of fear, leading to hate-speech laws that will supress freedom of speech. In order for us to challenge racist and intolerant ideas, Moon calls for an open debate, instead of practising censorship and only subjecting students to certain ‘approved’ ideas.

This article first appeared in Issue 7, 2017.
Posted 11:25am Sunday 9th April 2017 by Zahra Shahtahmasebi.