2018 an eventful year for freedom of expression

The rights of the public to freedom of expression, and the privileges and responsibilities of academic freedom have been put to the test in 2018 by several high-profile events that attracted national media attention. First there was Auckland Mayor Phil Goff’s decision in July to ban Canadian far-right speakers Lauren Southern and Stefan Molyneux from council owned venues.1 Goff was criticised by Don Brash for infringing the public right to free speech in a legal motion by the Free Speech Coalition that aimed to “force Mr Goff to recognise he is in breach of the Bill of Rights and the Human Rights Act”.2 For a short while Don Brash became the ‘public face’ of the Free Speech Coalition, and then in an ironic twist of events found himself the subject of a ‘speaking ban’ when in August Massey Vice-Chancellor Jan Thomas ordered his visit to the Massey Manawatū campus be cancelled “over fears the event could lead to violence”.3 While it could appear the decision by Jan Thomas crossed a line between the public’s right to freedom of expression and the rights of university students and academics to academic freedom (since Brash had been invited by a student society) this is not necessarily the case since Massey had “no obligation to provide infrastructure for Brash to espouse his views”.4 However, public condemnation of Thomas’ decision was wide-ranging and included commentary by at least one senior Massey academic who viewed it as “unequivocally wrong”.5
Then in September e-mails obtained under the Official Information Act revealed that Thomas had “misled the public” by claiming her decision to ban Brash was for ‘security reasons’ which led to calls for her resignation.6 Thomas’ decision to ban Brash, and attempt to justify it for security reasons, set a worrying precedent firstly as a possible infringement on the rights of students and academics to academic freedom as defined by the Education Act (1989)7, and secondly to conflate subject matter that may be controversial with public safety inferring that any controversial topic of discussion ‘could lead to violence’.
In October an entirely different sequence of events unfolded concerning public freedom of expression, and the responsibilities of academics to the privilege of academic freedom. On 2 October RNZ (Radio New Zealand) reported on an Auckland billboard that had been up for one day and then removed by the billboard operator following a stream of complaints. The billboard featured a poster by a public advocacy group called WAVESnz8 depicting a man holding a young baby with the caption: If you knew the ingredients in a vaccine, would you RISK it? The poster was professionally produced and contained no offensive or defamatory images or information, yet attracted more than 140 complaints to the Advertising Standards Authority in a single day. A spokesperson for the billboard operator Ad-Vantage Media said “[he] did not fully understand the controversy that a billboard questioning the efficacy of vaccines would cause”, and presumably ordered removal of the poster for commercial or reputational reasons as there was no legal compulsion to do so. In this case the decision to infringe upon the right to freedom of expression of WAVESnz was made by a commercial operator exercising ownership of the billboard under (or in breach of) whatever terms and conditions the advertising contract with WAVESnz allowed. Later that day a line was crossed concerning academic freedom when John Fraser of the University of Auckland was interviewed by RNZ. Dr Fraser claimed the billboard was “underhanded and deceitful” and “almost organised terrorism”.9 How something can be ‘almost’ terrorism is in itself a bit perplexing (either it is, or it is not), but what was really concerning was the use, or abuse, of academic freedom to characterise a group or organisation as ‘terrorist’. There is wide-ranging controversy concerning vaccine safety, it’s a controversial subject, but that doesn’t give academics the right to defend their expertise or opinion by attacking opponents with allegations of terrorism. This was not the first time Dr Fraser had characterised an activity or group as ‘terrorist’. In May 2017 RNZ reported on the film Vaxxed, an investigative documentary concerning the CDC (Centers for Disease Control) where officials allegedly ordered vaccine research evidence destroyed. The film was touring New Zealand, an activity Dr Fraser described as “the same as terrorism”.10 These comments characterised the film and its tour organisers as terrorists in an incredibly divisive and dehumanising way. When questioned about this University of Auckland Vice-Chancellor Stuart McCutcheon stated in an e-mail “[he] is a world-leading expert in infectious diseases and I would back his opinion on these matters any day of the week.”11
The issue here was not a question of Dr Fraser’s academic expertise but rather of his extreme use of divisive, and possibly defamatory, language toward an advocacy group which McCutcheon failed to address. The use of terrorism, where it is deliberately implied as a tool to supress freedom of speech has been condemned by the United Nations12 and should not be tolerated by the wider academic community.
Critic and Conscience Responsibility
The privilege of academic freedom comes with a responsibly to act respectfully towards the views and positions of others. The right to ‘state controversial or unpopular opinions’ (to which the public also have a right) does not imply that slander, defamation, or outright verbal abuse is ever acceptable. Thomas’ decision to ‘ban’ Don Brash might be seen as an infringement on the academic rights of students and staff at Massey, and McCutcheon’s unwillingness to admonish Dr Fraser’s extremist language is at the very least disappointing. Vice-Chancellor Thomas could be said to have failed in her duty under the Act “for the maintenance by institutions of the highest ethical standards” (s161, 3 (a), Education Act, 1989). However, in the situation concerning Dr Fraser it is up to individual academics to moderate themselves in their exercise of academic freedom.
In September this year the University of Canterbury reviewed and revised its policy on academic freedom, renaming it Critic & Conscience of Society and Academic Freedom Principles and Policy.13 The policy confirms and protects all of the rights of academic freedom under the Act, but goes much further by providing guidance to all members of the university engaged in scholarly activities (and as a guide to university management) and explicitly states it does not allow a member to “defame others, intimidate or discriminate against those who hold dissenting or non-conforming views or opinions, either within or beyond the University”. The policy only applies to members of the University of Canterbury, but in the cases outlined here, and for the wider academic communities of New Zealand, this policy sets a standard by which we as scholars, and the public at large, can all benefit.

Commentary by Malcolm Scott, University of Canterbury.

 

1 RNZ, 6 July 2018, https://www.radionz.co.nz/news/national/361220/far-right-pair-banned-from-speaking-at-auckland-council-venues-phil-goff
2 RNZ, 11 July 2018, https://www.radionz.co.nz/news/national/361535/auckland-council-to-be-taken-to-court-over-ban-on-right-wing-speakers
3 RNZ, 7 August 2018, https://www.radionz.co.nz/news/national/363534/don-brash-s-talk-to-massey-students-canned
4 Univoice, 21 September 2018, https://blogs.canterbury.ac.nz/univoice/2018/09/21/brash-is-not-a-victim-but-thinking-so-could-harm-academic-freedom/
5 RNZ, 11 August 2018, https://www.radionz.co.nz/news/on-the-inside/363686/the-decision-to-cancel-don-brash-s-speaking-event-is-unequivocally-wrong
6 RNZ, 20 September 2018, https://www.radionz.co.nz/news/national/366920/massey-uni-vice-chancellor-has-no-intention-of-resigning
7 s161, Education Act (1989), http://www.legislation.govt.nz/act/public/1989/0080/latest/DLM183665.html
8 WAVESnz – Warnings About Vaccine Expectations, https://wavesnz.org.nz/
9 RNZ, 2 October 2018, https://www.radionz.co.nz/national/programmes/checkpoint/audio/2018665071/immunologist-slams-anti-vaccine-billboard-as-almost-organised-terrorism
10 RNZ, 25 May 2017, https://www.radionz.co.nz/national/programmes/checkpoint/audio/201845189/nz-immunologist-likens-anti-vaccination-movement-to-terrorism
11 E-mail from Stuart McCutcheon, 27 May 2017.
12 UN News, 2 January 2018, https://news.un.org/en/story/2018/01/640852-un-experts-decry-saudi-arabias-use-anti-terror-laws-against-peaceful-activists
13 https://www.canterbury.ac.nz/about/governance/ucpolicy/general/critic-&-conscience-of-society-academic-freedom-principles-and-policy/

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