By Miriam Bell
Freedom of speech is under threat at New Zealand Universities and the right to express opinions must be protected, an open letter signed by a diverse array of high profile New Zealanders* has warned.
Released this week, the letter said that freedom of speech enables religious observance, individual development, societal change, science, reason and progress in all spheres of New Zealand life.
Additionally, it emphasised that the free exchange of ideas is a cornerstone of academe and must be protected.
“Universities should be institutions where robust debate and the free exchange of ideas take place, not the forceful silencing of dissenting or unpopular views,” the letter said.
"Individuals, not any institution or group, should make their own judgments about ideas and should express these judgments not by seeking to suppress speech, but by openly and vigorously contesting the ideas they oppose, without discrimination or intimidation.
"We must ensure that our higher learning establishments are places where intellectual rigour prevails over emotional blackmail and where academic freedom, built on free expression, is maintained and protected.
“We must fight for each other's right to express opinions, even if we do not agree with them."
AUT professor Paul Moon, who co-ordinated the letter, told media the trouble is that people often don't know the difference between free speech and hate speech.
"Usually, if people are offended by what is said it's seen as hate speech… But it is dangerous to silence someone just because we don't like what they say."
Such views are a threat to the right to free speech and put the definition of free speech at the whim of people pursuing that line, he said.
The letter was written in response to reports that the Human Rights Commission and the New Zealand police are advocating for specific hate crime legislation.
It also follows a number of incidents on New Zealand campuses, in recent years, where people with non-mainstream views who were scheduled to give presentations were made to feel unwelcome and/or silenced.
These included pro-Israel Palestinian activist Bassam Eid and two visting Israeli students who were formerly in the IDF.
However, the Human Rights Commission has denied that it wants a change to existing hate speech laws.
Rather Commission spokesperson Christine Ammunson said they are asking the police to collect “hate crime” data as part of their crime statistics.
“For example if Jewish graves are desecrated we want the police to record that crime as more than just property damage.”
There are a number of laws already in place that deal with speech and actions that attack people or groups on the basis of their personal characteristics, she said.
“Courts and tribunals interpret these laws with reference to freedom of expression and other relevant legal principles.”
Meanwhile, Tertiary Education Minister Paul Goldsmith said freedom of speech at universities might be topical in the US and UK, but he doesn’t think it’s an issue in New Zealand.
"I haven't had a sense that people in New Zealand universities on the whole, don't feel as though they are able to express themselves properly but it's something we should watch carefully."
*The signatories of the letter were:
Assoc Professor Len Bell, Dr Don Brash, Dr David Cumin, Sir Toby Curtis, Dr Brian Edwards, Graeme Edwards, Dr Gavin Ellis, Sir Michael Friedlander, Alan Gibbs, Dame Jenny Gibbs, Bryan Gould, Wally Hirsh, Professor Manying Ip, Sir Bob Jones, Professor Pare Keiha, Assoc Professor Luamanuvao Winnie Laban, Dame Lesley Max, Gordon McLauchlan, Professor Paul Moon, Sir Douglas Myers, Assoc Professor Camille Nakhid, Sir Geoffrey Palmer, Professor Edwina Pio, David Rankin, Philip Temple, Dame Tariana Turia and Professor Albert Wendt.
To read more on this issue see this earlier One Community Chronicle article: http://chronicle.1.org.nz/Item.asp?Item=5196