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On April 4, Dr Paul Moon wrote an op-ed for Stuff and delivered a letter to the government calling on them to protect free speech at universities. This letter was signed by many high profile public figures, such as Dr Don Brash and Dame Tariana Turia. Unfortunately, it wasn’t an April fool’s joke. I will put aside the claims that free speech in New Zealand and in universities is being threatened. This claim is baseless, and as someone who works and studies within the university environment I have never seen this exist.
I want to explore whether or not we should have freedom of speech at campus. Freedom of speech is championed as a hallmark of a liberal and open society; however, I don’t buy into that. Consider when in 2015 Israeli Defence Force soldiers came to Victoria University of Wellington to speak about Israel. Many protested this appearance because it came after Operation Protective Edge, which some claim killed around 2000 civilians. Should we allow this tacit approval of this action on campus? I personally don’t believe in advocating for an apartheid state, and do not believe any ‘Western liberal democracy’ should either. Those who are protesting the IDF were labelled as shutting down freedom of speech by some Zionists on campus, and yet ironically were exercising their own freedom of speech in protesting this.
Tertiary education providers in New Zealand are legislatively required to be the critic and conscience of society. Being the conscience of society does not just require safe spaces in which people can offer these views, it is also about remembering the awful atrocities that have happened to people and not allowing them to be advocated to happen again. Take the so-called ‘Western Guard’ which have been hanging posters at universities around the country. They advocate for white nationalism and, as Salient has reported, also take issue with Jewish people. Should the university shut down discussion that involves not just discrimination, but perhaps possible genocide of these groups (after all, the Western Guard’s slogan is “Let’s Take Our Country Back”).
Let us quickly explore what Freedom of Speech means for Dr Don Brash. In 2011 Dr Brash paid for a half page advertisement in the New Zealand Herald, claiming that Māori have too many rights in New Zealand. Not only is this fundamentally incorrect, all New Zealand citizens are equal before the law, it is unconscionable to say this considering Māori people have been murdered, imprisoned, and alienated to create the modern New Zealand.
Here is the crux of my argument: speech should be allowed on campus if it is factually correct, and if it serves the purpose as a societal conscience. Since much of the rhetoric from far-right groups that have been coming out of the shadows recently are neither, therefore they should not be allowed on campus. To reiterate: conversations on campus should be factually correct, and they should act as a societal conscience.
Lastly, as a snide aside, if Dr Brash and Dame Turia believe so strongly about this perhaps they should both re-enter Parliament and get legislative change to enshrine their values of free speech. I just hope that it is as popular as Dr Brash’s 2005 attempt to be Prime Minister.