(First published in the Manawatu Standard, other Stuff regional papers and Stuff.co.nz, October 30.)
Professor Jim Flynn, an internationally admired and widely published emeritus professor of political studies at the University of Otago, recently experienced a highly ironic late-career setback.
A letter from his British publisher, Emerald Press, advised him that the firm had got cold feet and reneged on an earlier undertaking to publish a book by Flynn provisionally entitled In Defence of Free Speech: The University as Censor.
Flynn’s manuscript (to quote from Emerald’s synopsis, written before they pulled the plug) argues that a good university teaches students the intellectual skills they need to be intelligently critical of their own beliefs and of the narratives presented by politicians and the media.
Freedom to debate, Flynn writes, is essential to the development of critical thought. But the octogenarian academic warns that on university campuses today, free speech is restricted for fear of causing offence.
Explaining its change of heart, Emerald Press told Flynn that publication of his book, which addresses “sensitive topics of race, religion, and gender”, would have placed the publisher at risk of legal action under Britain’s heavy-handed hate speech laws. While accepting that Flynn clearly had no intention of promoting hatred, the publishers said intent was irrelevant.
The irony is all too obvious. A book about the dangers of censoring free speech for fear of causing offence has itself been censored for fear of causing offence.
The irony is compounded by the fact that Flynn, who was active in the American civil rights movement of the 1960s and was twice a candidate for the far-Left Alliance Party here, has impeccable anti-racist credentials. But he also believes emphatically in the values of free and open debate and, as a profile in The Listener noted in 2012, “refuses to back away from sensitive issues”.
The fate of Flynn’s manuscript underscores the extent of the threat facing freedom of speech in liberal democracies.
Incidents such as the Christchurch mosque massacres are increasingly cited not just as proof that dangerous extremism exists, but in support of arguments that to discourage it, governments must tighten restrictions on what people are allowed to say. But suppressing free speech doesn’t eliminate extremism and often serves only to drive it underground, where it can thrive unseen.
Just as worryingly, controls on speech also risk stifling legitimate public debate. Laws that govern what people are allowed to say must strike a delicate balance. They must deter incitements to hatred or violence, yet stop short of suppressing reasoned discussion of sensitive issues such as immigration, multiculturalism, religious belief and gender identity.
In a mature, civilised democracy such as New Zealand, it’s possible to debate such issues without encouraging hostility toward minorities. Existing laws allow that, but are now under review.
There is mounting evidence that in a mood of anxiety fanned by concerns about racism and extreme nationalism, most of it originating far from our shores, attempts are being made to shut down free speech in the very forums where it should be allowed to flourish, and often for feeble or spurious reasons.
In a celebrated case last year, former National Party leader Don Brash was barred from speaking at a Massey University event – the first instance at a New Zealand university of the phenomenon known as no-platforming. The reason given was that protesters might threaten people’s safety, but inquiries under the Official Information Act revealed that the university vice-chancellor’s real objection was ideological. She didn’t want the university to be seen as endorsing “racist behaviours” - a reference to Brash's oft-stated and widely shared position that laws should be colour-blind.
More recently, a High Court judge held that an Auckland Council-owned company was entitled, on security grounds, to bar two alt-right Canadian activists from speaking in a publicly owned venue that was threatened with a protest blockade – a decision seen as clearing the way for protesters to force the cancellation of speaking engagements simply by threatening trouble.
In the light of that ruling, it was perhaps no surprise that Massey University’s Wellington campus, citing similar safety and security issues, subsequently pulled the plug on a feminists’ conference that transgender activists had threatened to disrupt.
There’s another strange irony here. Feminists were once at the cutting edge of radical politics but now, because of their insistence that a person with a penis cannot be a woman, find themselves under attack by a more radical ideology that wants to silence them.
A striking feature of the speech wars is that traditional ideological battle lines have been redrawn, pitting traditional leftists (Flynn is one, Chris Trotter another) against generally younger and more radical zealots who don’t share their commitment to free speech.
When a university is intimidated into cancelling a legitimate event and a highly regarded professor is effectively blacklisted, no one should doubt that freedom of speech is under serious threat. The underlying hazard - namely, bigotry disguised as intolerance of bigotry - is inimical to liberal democracy and must be resisted.