Freedom of speech
The university

White supremacists on campus and the never-ending end of free speech

It seems that every week there is a new free speech controversy involving a New Zealand university. The other day, the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Auckland, Stuart McCutcheon, told the student magazine Craccum that he planned to do little about white supremacists distributing material and displaying posters on his campus. ‘I think there is a balancing act – and it’s particularly important at a university – between the rights of the people to free speech and the rights of people not to be upset by things,’ he said. The controversy follows another that has been developing at Massey University surrounding its decision to host a panel discussion, under the banner o ‘Feminism 2020,’ featuring a number of Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminists. In a statement released last Friday, the university stated that while the university does not ‘share the views of the speakers of this event,’ it is ‘also committed to free speech as a fundamental tenet of a university.’ Thus the event would go ahead.

This is not the first time Massey has been involved in a free-speech controversy over the past couple of years. In August 2018, Vice-Chancellor Jan Thomas, cancelled a venue booking for former conservative leader Don Brash citing security and other concerns. On this occasion, Brash planned to speak about – or, rather, against – Indigenous rights, a favourite topic of his.

A subsequent review indicated that Thomas had not intended to halt the event before a security threat was made, and that the public statement reflected her reasons for cancelling the booking. At the time, though, the decision caused a prolonged media storm, providing further impetus for ‘Free-Speech Coalition’ formed in response to the banning from Auckland council venues of Lauren Southern and Stefan Molyneux, and of which Brash himself was a prominent member. As a result of the backlash, the invitation was un-revoked, and Brash was eventually able to speak on campus.

For most students and staff at New Zealand universities, the intensity of these controversies would likely have come as something of a surprise, as free speech had not been a hot-button topic for some time. As in Australia, I would suggest that both the eruption and the intensity of these local battles reflect a larger international context in which a number of seemingly discrete movements have coalesced around the issue of freedom of speech on campus as a proxy for other issues.

The first coalition comprises British, American, and Australian reactionaries associated with the likes of The Spectator, The Federalist, and Quillette, who have been engaged – or perhaps we could say ‘triggered’ – by a reinvigorated student protest movement. While their targets are broad, in the context of free-speech debates they have taken issue in particular with the protest strategy known as ‘no-platforming.’ In its broadest form, no-platforming seeks to refuse certain individuals the ability to speak on university campuses. More narrowly, it does not allow officers of a student union to share platforms with certain named organisations. Reactionary commentators have seen no-platforming as an attempt by coddled undergraduates – conspiring with their left-wing professors – to outlaw right-wing thought and scholarship.

The second coalition is associated with Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminism. Radical feminism may not seem to have a lot in common with the views espoused by the likes of Quillette and The Spectator (although it should be noted that two of the speakers at ‘Feminism 2020’ – Holly Lawford-Smith and Meghan Murphy – have recently published articles in Quillette.) Where they agree, however, is in their strenuous opposition to no-platforming.

New Zealand’s own trans-exclusive movement was born out of campaigning in 2018 against a proposed amendment to the Births, Deaths, and Marriages Act akin to the changes recently passed in Victoria, and resulted in the formation of the pressure group Speak Up for Women. The campaigners modelled themselves on the group that became Woman’s Place UK, which in 2017 had itself formed to protest similar proposals in the UK to reform the UK Gender Recognition Act (2004). Over the last two years, Woman’s Place UK meetings have been the target of significant protest action, including attempts to shut them down. WPUK, in response to these protests, now lists the ‘robust defence of the human right to freedom of speech in academia’ as a key demand in its manifesto. (Quite why freedom of speech in academia should be considered a universal human right – rather than a privilege specific to academics – is not made clear.)

As might be expected, neither out-and-out reactionaries nor Speak Up for Women have attuned their free speech arguments particularly well to the New Zealand context. Radio personality Mike Hosking, responding to the Don Brash controversy, rather perplexingly concluded that the modern university is a place ‘where offence is guarded, if not policed against, where views held must adhere to hierarchies, where there is a gate keeper driven by the Treaty of Waitangi and its politically correct outworking’. Rather than repeating lines from Quillette thinly adapted to the local context, he might have been better off appealing to the authority of the New Zealand Education Act (1989), which explicitly provides that students and academic staff in universities have the right ‘to question and test received wisdom, to put forward new ideas and to state controversial or unpopular opinions’. The UK Higher Education and Research Act (2017) contains no similar provisions, which is why the argument he was parroting makes no mention of them. Similarly, Speak Up for Women makes no reference in its materials to Māori understandings of gender, and its campaigns are restricted to those that connect with the international trans-exclusionary movement – namely, legal gender recognition and the ‘integrity’ of women’s sport. It is surely relevant to these issues that the history of official designations of gender identity in New Zealand is a consequence of settler colonialism, but this inconvenient fact is best ignored.

There are, however, elements that all of these manufactured controversies have in common. First, there are fundamental questions of fact. To put it bluntly, there are no secretive politburos of students and staff determining what may and may not be said on campus. Rather, as Sylvia Nissen has pointed out, increasing financial constraints have led to a transformed political environment for student political engagement. Among other things, students are often both deeply indebted and working alongside study – political engagement now fits in around precarious lives. Secondly, it fits very much within the general project of the university for student protesters to seek the denial of platforms to speakers who would wish to spread falsehoods and inflame discord rather than to undertake shared inquiry and produce public forms of reasoning. Disreputable arguments can legitimately be excluded from university campuses, in the same way that we would not automatically accept that there is a duty for a university to host a holocaust denier. Where the limits of a university’s duties fall is both a question of fact and politics, but we have not arrived at the point where this can be or has been reasonably discussed.

My interest is in the structural conditions that could support a more meaningful notion of free expression on campuses. Let me return to the New Zealand Education Act. One of the five definitional characteristics of a university according to that Act is that a university accepts ‘a role as critic and conscience of society’. This tenet exists alongside the academic freedom provisions that I quoted earlier, which are concerned with the capacity of a university’s students and staff to pursue knowledge without fear or favour and in a manner that ensures the autonomy of the university from the executive. Self-government, even in a limited form, is a crucial element of both academic freedom and the critic and conscience role. Ultimately, what the Act envisages is a university that is its own kind of republic, as it chooses what to teach and what to research, within the constraints necessary for public scrutiny and accountability.

This piece of legislation reads today as an almost utopian document. In the three decades since it was drafted, there has been a near-total transformation in the environment for teaching and learning at university in New Zealand, such that the Act has become a time capsule of its own. The campus it describes (and prescribes) is not recognisable in the actually existing conditions of our university education. From the student side, the Act predates by two years the stripping away of government grants to students, and the implementation in their place of a system of student fees and loans. Over the following ten years in particular, interest-bearing loans and accelerating fees meant that the norm for students became heavy indebtedness and reduced autonomy. This was especially the case when paired with a receding graduate job market. From the faculty side, this period saw a comprehensive transformation in the funding environment for higher education. The mantra of the 1990s was ‘student choice’, which in practice meant that departmental and school income became tied to preferences from students at the level of the major and the course. Over time, universities responded to the transformed funding environment by attempting to internalise the external market. That is, university administration increasingly sought to tie departmental funding to those elements of the university’s business that attracts funding – student numbers especially, but also grant-based or profitable research. The inevitable consequence of all of this is that professional schools with large first-year cohorts or the capacity to attract grants weathered the storm, while other departments effectively undertook a race against each to attract and retain students as best they could. The volatility within departmental budgets discouraged hiring of permanent staff, while the general shrinking of some budgets led to further casualisation and layoffs. More than forty per cent of university academics in New Zealand are now on part-time or casual contracts, in particular at the bottom-end of the market – meaning the academics in the early stages of their careers who do much of the actual teaching.

What I am describing is the almost total erosion of the labour conditions that would support a more profound conception of freedom of speech on campus. It is not clear to me that academics can act as ‘critic and conscience’ while being on an insecure contract. Neither that students can enjoy these statutory rights while struggling to make ends meet. Lecturers face renewal of contracts and uncertain workloads year on year, which disincentivises criticising one’s employer – or indeed marking students too harshly. Students are faced with significant constraints that make the campus just one of their many workplaces. It is hard to act politically when one does not have an imagined political home. As the entire workplace has become more contingent, the protections fought for over decades by both students and academics – protections from the government, the public, and indeed from each other – have evaporated almost by stealth. Without these protections, there can be no fearless pursuit of knowledge in the face of whatever resistance, that is, with freedom of expression in its strongest and most easily defensible sense. As Nick Riemer wrote recently in this magazine, ‘if governments really wanted universities to foster the uninhibited expression of a greater diversity of views,’ they could ‘make higher education free for students, and greatly increase the number of permanent academic staff universities can afford to employ.’

It is no surprise that the debate that has taken place around free speech on campus has become fixated upon symbolic rather than structural concerns. This can be described as the victory of a reactionary form of identity politics, a late-arriving shot in the culture wars. According to this view, freedom of speech is not in itself a good to be cherished and defended, but rather a campus tradition that is significant only in so far as it allows for certain reactionary political concepts to be discussed – and in turn legitimised. A case in point is the absence of any meaningful defence of Justine Sachs and Nadia Abu-Shanab, a student and teacher respectively who wrote the open letter to Lorde which resulted in the cancellation of her scheduled concert in Israel. Although the pair were fined from an Israeli court for their political actions and received death threats from those they angered, conservative commentators in New Zealand offered no defence of their right to speak freely about Israel. What is deemed worthy of public and institutional support instead is the right for white supremacists to hand out flyers on campus.

When unmoored from the conditions under which students and academic staff labour, and from the structure of the university more generally, discussions about freedom of speech on campus are emptied of their significant content. In place of debate, we are left endlessly relitigating the rights and wrongs of a concept of freedom that none of us should accept. That concept has more to do with guaranteeing impunity for fascists and trans-exclusionary feminists to say what they like on university campuses, and with denying staff and students the ability to counter with legitimate forms of protest, than it does with freedom of speech in any meaningful sense. Reconstructing a more profound structure of free expression is ultimately part of the broader struggle to assert the rights and dignity of academic work, and to end the precarity of student lives. Anything short of this is not just pointless, but counterproductive.


Image: A white supremacist sticker at the University of Auckland

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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Andrew Dean is a Junior Research Fellow at the Institute of Advanced Studies, University College London.

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