Universities must protect free speech or have funding cut

Sat, 16 Nov, 2019

Tertiary institutions will be legally required to protect academic freedom and free speech on campus or risk losing funding under a new member’s bill proposed by ACT Leader David Seymour.

“There is a growing danger of taxpayer-funded universities abusing their health and safety obligations in order to ‘deplatform’ speakers whom small groups of vocal activists find controversial”, says ACT Leader David Seymour.

“This year, Massey University cancelled Don Brash and Feminism 2020 events. Its just-announced free speech policy allows it cancel speakers if there is a chance of ‘mental harm to students’.

“Mental harm is deeply subjective and allows 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, and in particular the mental wellbeing of students, has now become an excuse for universities to obstruct speech that small groups of activists find offensive.

“Universities are currently required to meet a number of conditions to receive taxpayer money, but protecting academic freedom and freedom of expression is not among them.

“Under the legislation I am proposing, tertiary institutions will be required to show a practical commitment to upholding academic freedom and free speech, as outlined in a mandatory code of practice, 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.”

Note to editors:

Mr Seymour’s proposed amendments to the Education Act 1989 will:

• 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;
• Limit eligibility for funding to institutions that do not comply with the mandatory code of practice.