ACT’s plan to protect freedom of expression, especially in universities
- Specify that tertiary institutions have obligations under sections 13 and 14 of the Bill of Rights Act 1990;
- Provide for the development of a mandatory code of practice for these instructions regarding how to ensure that they met those obligations; and,
- Limit eligibility for funding to institutions that do not comply with the mandatory code of practice.
Freedom of expression is the basis of all freedoms. It has an inherent value. We each experience life in a unique way and should be free to share that experience with others. It also has a practical value. Feminists or anti-Springbok tour protestors alike would not have been as successful as they were without having the ability to make unpopular statements.
Unfortunately, there is a growing danger of taxpayer-funded universities abusing their health and safety obligations in order to ‘deplatform’ speakers and shut down free speech on campus. Massey University, for example, has recently cancelled Don Brash and Feminism 2020 events and taken down pro-Hong Kong democracy posters.
Massey believes it should cancel speakers if there is a chance of ‘mental harm to students’. But mental harm is subjective and allows vocal activists to block events from taking place by claiming that they are likely to be psychologically hurt by the presence of a speaker on campus.
Universities are supposed to be committed to free and open inquiry in all matters and places where difficult ideas can be examined. It is not the role of universities to protect students from ideas they find offensive. It is for students to make judgments about which ideas they find disagreeable and to openly and vigorously contest them. Fostering the ability of students to engage in such debate is an essential part of a university’s educational mission.
Health and safety has now become an excuse for universities to obstruct speech that small groups of activists find offensive.
Universities are required to meet a number of conditions to receive taxpayer money, but protecting academic freedom and freedom of expression is not among them. ACT says that tertiary institutions must protect academic freedom and free speech in order to receive funding.
Tertiary institutions like universities will need to take all reasonable steps to protect academic freedom and free speech, and health and safety will not be allowed to be used as an excuse to ‘deplatform’ speakers unless there are threats to physical safety.