Opinion:

Just when it looked like the mid-winter madness over who can speak where, was dying down, up popped Opposition leader Simon Bridges.

Aghast that Massey University had banned a former National party leader, Don Brash, from speaking on its campus, he wants mild-mannered Education Minister Chris Hipkins to storm the university citadel and twist arms. “Making some expectations clear could have a desired effect,” Bridges told TVNZ’s Q & A.

If that didn’t work, Government should consider funding cuts. “I actually do think they [the Government] have tools at their disposal. They fund the universities. I haven’t gone through the legislative framework but they certainly have the tools there. So actually I don’t think they can sit this out. They need to send a message that free speech really matters.”

Like Bridges, the vast majority of us agree banning Brash for “security” reasons was wrong. It seems that in defending the right of two white extremists from Canada to speak here, Brash ended up in their basket.

But a much greater mistake would be to send in the Government storm troopers to restore “free speech,” threatening to cut off funding unless the professors agreed, presumably, to a list of approved speakers, and who knows what other instructions.

The concept of academic freedom, where universities are free to study and debate and publish ideas without unreasonable interference from the government of the day, was not written into New Zealand law until the Education Act 1989, though it was presumed beforehand. I recall exposing an SIS operative in the Auckland University Political Studies Department in the mid-1960s. He was combining his studies with trying to recruit on-campus snoops at a time of great student unrest over the Vietnam War.

A Commission of Inquiry ensued and the spy was booted off campus and offered “home-schooling” as a compromise. The SIS also agreed to respect the universities special role by alerting the academics of any subsequent spies enrolling on campus.

Prior to the 1989 Education Act, the universities were so concerned the new law might undermine academic freedom and the autonomy of universities, that Prime Minister Geoffrey Palmer, with the aid of his deputy Helen Clark and then Court of Appeal judge Sir Kenneth Keith, drafted an amendment which Sir Geoffrey later noted “was put in very deliberately … to protect the fundamental purpose of universities.”

One clause declared that “academic freedom and the autonomy” of universities “are to be preserved and enhanced.” Also, universities shall “accept a role as critic and conscience of society.”

It was seen as enshrining the universities as a sort of fifth estate, sitting alongside the watch dog role of the media, the so-called fourth estate, both keeping a critical eye on those in power.

Prior to the last election, the Tertiary Education Union warned that these freedoms were being eroded. It pointed to the introduction of research contracts awarded by both government and private sector which containing clauses suppressing the publication of “awkward or inconvenient finding, where they may jeopardise business interests or government policy.”

The university teachers were also alarmed by National’s push “to privatise tertiary education and make it entirely a private good.”

Now National’s new leader Simon Bridges is adding to this nightmare scenario by proposing the way to uphold academic freedom at Massey University is by a combination of cutting off funds and “re-education” until the Vice Chancellor Dr Jan Thomas, admits to the error of her ways.

In his desperation to improve his dismal poll ratings, Bridges has been touring the country in his ministerial limo, barking at anything that moves. The shadow of Brash trying to scale the Massey ramparts was irresistible. What he seems to have missed is that the debate is already on at Massey.

Earlier this week, deputy pro vice-chancellor, Professor Chris Gallavin declared the ban “unequivocally wrong.” He told Radio New Zealand “It is unfortunate, but the world seems to have lost the ability to disagree well,” adding “we will need to find within us the ability to have difficult conversations.”

This recourse to the powers of free speech seems so much more appropriate than Bridges’ nuclear bomb solution. The fall-out so less toxic.

Source: NZ Herald

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