Twenty-seven high-profile New Zealanders, including unilikely allies such as Don Brash and Dame Tariana Turia, have penned an open letter warning that freedom of speech is under threat at the country’s universities.
The campaign which was the brainchild of Auckland University of Technology history professor Paul Moon, rejects “the forceful silencing of dissenting or unpopular views” on tertiary campuses.
It also insists debate must not be suppressed because the ideas put forth “are thought by some or even by most people to be offensive, immoral, or wrong-headed”.
The move comes after an Auckland University group called the European Students Association was closed down after threats to its members amid accusations of racism. Its leaders had denied the club was racist.
The letter also follows Human Rights Commissioner Dame Susan Devoy’s February call for a review of online hate speech, and Police Commissioner Mike Bush suggesting an examination of the pros and cons of specific crime.
The open letter has been signed by academics, business leaders, community representatives and controversial commentators including Sir Bob Jones, former prime minister Sir Geoffrey Palmer, Maori educationist Sir Toby Curtis, poet Albert Wendt and former MP Luamanuvao Winnie Laban.
Moon said freedom of speech was the foundation of a modern diverse and democratic society. It protected religious freedom and individual expression.
“Kneejerk calls from police and the Human Right Commission to introduce hate-speech laws after recent attacks on ethnic communities will have the unintended consequence of suppressing free speech. Education, open debate and understanding will change racist and intolerant views – not censorship,” he said.
Freedom of speech was intimately connected with freedom of thought. “There is no inalienable right not to be offended. It is dangerous and wrong to silence someone because you take offence or don’t like what they say. Of course, there are limits; that is why inciting hatred or violence is already a crime.”
The current law was working well, he added.
Police Minister Paula Bennett has also poured cold water on the idea of a new crime, saying hate speech can be an aggravating factor in sentencing but going further was not a government priority.
But Moon said Devoy’s idea seemed to be her legacy project. “It’s not dead in the water yet as far as we can tell.”
In a speech at a Holocaust Remembrance Day event, Devoy said free speech was one thing, hate speech another. “I believe online hatred is something we can get better at calling out. We need better restrictions when it comes to online forums and social media.”
It was obvious to her when freedom of speech became a cover for threatening and harmful language.
She was also keen to see police gather hate-crime statistics.
Meanwhile, Moon has pointed to the forced closure of the controversial Auckland University club, calling this a slippery slope.
“History shows that fear and intolerance drives suppression of free speech, not that free speech causes fear and intolerance.”
Universities must be places for robust debate and the free exchange of ideas.
He said the letter’s signatories included those diametrically opposed on some issues, such as Brash and Turia on Maori rights. “But they are all prepared to have their say and let others have their say, even if it’s a very different imposing argument. That is the essence of how free speech works.”
Report by Vernon Small
The Dominion Post (Tuesday 3 April 2017), p. A2.
Note: Paul Moon is Professor of History at the Faculty of Maori Development at Auckland University of Technology.