Universities must protect free speech or face the consequences

Thu, 28 Nov, 2019

Universities and other tertiary education institutions will be required to protect free speech and academic freedom or otherwise lose funding under a new member’s bill launched today by ACT Leader David Seymour.

“Universities are meant to be committed to free and open inquiry in all matters, and places where difficult ideas can be examined. Tertiary education is funded by taxpayers for this very reason”, Mr Seymour says.

“But there is now a growing trend of universities abusing their health and safety obligations in order to ‘deplatform’ speakers or cancel events small groups of left-wing activists find offensive.

“This year, Massey University cancelled Don Brash and Feminism 2020 events, and staff tore down pro-Hong Kong democracy posters. The University’s new policy for dealing with external speakers allows it to cancel speakers if there is a chance of ‘mental harm to students’.

“Avoiding mental harm to students has now become an excuse for universities to shut down free speech on campus. Students will not become confident, resilient adults if we turn universities into giant creches. Indeed, why should taxpayers continue to fund universities if they are bastions of left-wing censorship?

“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.

“Tertiary education institutions are currently required to meet a number of conditions to receive taxpayer funding, but protecting free speech and academic freedom is not among them. Under the legislation I am proposing, tertiary education institutions will be required to protect free speech and academic freedom in order to receive taxpayer funding.”

The Education (Freedom of Expression) Amendment Bill says that tertiary education institutions:

• Must protect free speech and academic freedom, including by issuing free speech codes of practice that set out the procedures students and staff should follow to uphold free speech, and by ensuring the requirements of codes of practice are met;

• Must not use the avoidance of mental harm to students, staff or visitors as a reason not to comply with the requirement to protect free speech and academic freedom;

• Will be ineligible for funding, and may have funding suspended, revoked, or withdrawn, if they fail to comply with the requirement to protect free speech and academic freedom.