Last week the Free Speech Union, of which I’m a member, asked me to write something about the modern-day heresy trial initiated by the Royal Society of New Zealand following complaints about a letter written to the Listener in which seven respected academics very civilly challenged the idea that matauranga Maori – traditional Maori knowledge – should be given the same status as science. My article was to be distributed to media outlets in the hope that it would help draw attention to the parlous state of free speech in academia.
My article, which was sent out last Tuesday, is published below. It doesn’t deal solely with the Royal Society controversy, since I wanted to contextualise the society’s inquisition (which has attracted attention in the latest issue of the UK Spectator) by setting the current issue against the backdrop of other free speech controversies, just to remind readers that there’s a pattern here.
I deliberately adopted a low-key tone, bearing in mind the article was to be offered to mainstream media and I didn’t want to give them any excuse to reject it. But as of today, I’m told that only one small provincial paper has published it. People may feel entitled to assume from this that the protection of free speech doesn’t rate highly in media priorities, although all media outlets depend on it for their existence. (Of course it's also possible that it was rejected because it's a crappy article. You be the judge.)
Freedom of speech is a fundamental right in a liberal democracy – as important, even, as the right to vote, since people’s ability to cast an informed vote depends on them first being able to participate in free and open debate about political issues and ideas.
This is one of the crucial factors that distinguishes a true liberal democracy such as New Zealand from authoritarian “pretend” democracies such as Russia, where people are allowed to vote but are denied access to information and opinion that doesn’t conform to the agenda of those in control.
Accordingly, the Bill of Rights Act, passed by a Labour government in 1990, states that every New Zealander has the right to freedom of expression, “including the freedom to seek, receive and impart information and opinions of any kind in any form”. The wording is similar to that of the UN Declaration of Human Rights, except that the UN declaration goes a step further by asserting the right to “hold opinions without interference”.
Even before the Bill of Rights Act made it explicit, free speech was a right that New Zealanders took for granted. They exercised it (and still do) every day in letters to the editor and on radio talkback shows.
Yet a perception has grown in recent years that New Zealanders’ right to speak freely and to hear or read all shades of political opinion, short of those that incite violence and hatred, is under sustained attack. Concern at the fragility of free speech rights led to the formation this year of the Free Speech Union, which has drawn support from across the political and ideological spectrum.
One celebrated case involved the Canadian “alt-right” (so-called) speakers Lauren Southern and Stefan Molyneux, who were barred from speaking at a council-owned Auckland venue in 2018. The excuse used for denying them a platform was that the event might be disrupted by protesters.
Activists quickly realised they could force the cancellation of speeches by people they didn’t like simply by threatening protest action – a tactic sometimes referred as the heckler’s or thug's veto.
A similar pretext, fear of disruption, was used by Massey University to cancel a speech by former National Party leader and Reserve Bank governor Don Brash, although it’s hard to imagine anyone less likely to incite trouble than the unfailingly civil Brash. Emails released under the Official Information Act subsequently revealed that the real reason Massey’s vice-chancellor banned Brash was that she didn’t want the university to be seen as “endorsing racist behaviours”. In other words, she didn’t agree with Brash’s opinion on the Treaty of Waitangi.
The Southern-Molyneux controversy is still being played out in the courts, the crowd-funded Free Speech Union having gone all the way to the Supreme Court in a test case aimed at preventing public authorities from using the supposed threat of disruption as an excuse to “de-platform” speakers.
In the meantime, other developments have reinforced the perception that freedom of expression in New Zealand is imperilled. The feminist group Speak Up For Women (SUFW), which advances the unremarkable view that only people born female can call themselves women, has been barred from holding meetings in public premises and had a prominent advertising billboard taken down in central Wellington. Some newspapers refused to accept their ads.
SUFW’s struggle to get its message across in the face of determined opposition from trans-gender activists illustrates that the defence of free speech cuts across the usual ideological and political lines.
People who identify with the radical left have found themselves on the same side as conservatives and libertarians in pushing for the right to say what they think. The Free Speech Union’s supporters, for example, include veteran leftists Matt McCarten and Chris Trotter.
In the latest outbreak of the speech wars, the action has shifted to a new and worrying arena. Seven respected university academics found themselves blacklisted in July after they wrote a letter to The Listener challenging the notion that matauranga Maori – which can be defined as the traditional body of Maori knowledge – should be accorded the same status as science, as proposed by an NCEA working group preparing a new school curriculum.
In an unprecedented pile-on, more than 2000 fellow academics, urged on by professors Shaun Hendy and Siouxsie Wiles, signed a letter denouncing the Listener Seven and implying they condoned “scientific racism”.
The response went well beyond legitimate disagreement. The sheer weight and vehemence of the denunciation sent an unmistakeable message to the academic community: express dissent at your peril.
More alarmingly still, two of the Listener Seven are now being investigated by the Royal Society – an organisation dedicated, ironically, to the advancement of science – and may be expelled.
What started as an academic debate has thus taken on the character of a heresy trial. Even more ironically, one of the professors under investigation, Garth Cooper, is a Maori who has earned international acclaim for his achievements in Maori health.
Once again, the Free Speech Union has stepped up by creating an academic freedom fund to help defend the two accused. If the complaint against them is upheld, union spokesman Dr David Cumin says, academics will inevitably feel less safe expressing honestly held views on contentious issues.
The union accuses universities and research institutions of trying to muzzle the very people whose job is to ask questions. “Academic freedom is under attack.”
The bottom line here is that science and academia need people who challenge accepted wisdom, otherwise we would be stuck forever in the status quo. But in New Zealand in 2021, the price for deviating from approved orthodoxy is punishment and ostracism.
[Anyone interested in defending free speech is welcome to republish or distribute this article. The Free Speech Union website is here.]