Massey University’s decision last week to ban Dr Don Brash from speaking on campus was outrageous. It is part of a worrying global trend of public authorities wanting to censure what we hear. We need to reassert our rights of free speech including for those whose opinions we disagree.
The Don Brash example at Massey was particularly galling. He had been invited by the University’s Politic Society to speak on his experiences as a former Reserve Bank Governor and Leader of the Opposition.
Massey University’s Vice Chancellor Professor Jan Thomas, gave three reasons for banning Dr Brash talking. Firstly she argued that Dr Brash’s views were not consistent with the University’s recognition of the Treaty of Waitangi. I am proud of our ancestors, both Maori and European, who signed the Treaty of Waitangi founding our country, but it must never be used to silence free speech. The Treaty is no substitute for the Bill of Rights that guarantees basic freedoms for all New Zealanders, regardless of ethnicity.
Her second reason for banning Dr Brash was the risk of protest and violence. This is a cowardly excuse. She cited the letter she had received from an anti-Brash activist on campus. If speeches are to be cancelled after a threat of violence, we effectively provide a thug’s veto to free speech. People have a right to free speech and a right to protest but nobody has the right to commit or threaten violence.
The third argument of Professor Thomas was that she and other staff at Massey University did not support Dr Brash’s views against separate Maori representation on Councils and aligned it with hate speech. Most New Zealanders do not support separate Maori Council seats and if that is to be labelled hate speech we are getting into very dangerous territory.
It is particularly concerning that this ban occurred at a University. Our universities should be bastions of free speech and critical thought. Young people today are no less able than previous generations to sort out fact from fiction and right from wrong. Exposing our young people to a diversity of views is healthy.
We had our own small incident in Nelson at NMIT earlier this year. The Young Nationals were denied a stand during orientation week by the Students Association despite Labour and the Greens having a presence in previous years. The issue is before the Human Rights Commission. I hope they conclude that all political parties should be allowed on campus and that students should be free to choose whomever they want to join.
Free speech is not an absolute. People do not have a right to incite violence, defame others or cause harm by falsely crying fire in a crowded theatre. But we need to be very cautious of any limits on constraining free expression of political opinions. I concur with our High Court’s view that “Freedom of Expression is the first and last trench in the protection of liberty.”