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  • Henry Broadbent

Nic Smith—Freedom of Speech Crusader


OPINION: Earlier this month an email from the Office of the Vice Chancellor Nic Smith circulated among staff, excitedly promoting “a panel discussion about the rights and responsibilities associated with freedom of speech”. The panellists will: “explore ideas around contributing to controversial debate, [and] the importance of separating the topic under discussion from identity politics”.

The issue of free speech is one of increasing importance to our VC. In February he published an opinion column in The Post, about just that. The column reveals that his growing focus is spurred on, in no small part, by ACT’s insistence on a clause in the coalition agreement requiring universities to “commit to a free speech policy” in order to receive public funding. On the campaign trail David Seymour has been banging on about funding cuts to universities which fail to “protect free speech”.

Smith’s reaction to this, in The Post, revolved around what he perceives as an increasingly polarised social fabric in Aotearoa. “So much of our literature and science”, he writes, “has been shaped by productively bringing conflicting views together”. This is a dynamic he fears is under threat in a macro sense, but particularly at universities. Instead, he sees an environment in which “those occupying the middle ground are stepping back from publicly contributing to discussions” for fear of reputational reprisal.

As an aside before we return to the panel, let’s briefly focus on this lament for a distant past of ‘robust academic debate’, a refrain that often appears around academic freedom of speech. A 2016 history of university reforms from the Productivity commission reveals that, prior to education reforms from 1980-99, “[s]tudents from lower socio-economic groups were substantially under-represented in post compulsory education and training. The system was insufficiently sensitive to the needs of ethnic groups (particularly Māori and Pasifika) and of women.” 

That fact alone goes a long way in explaining why Smith and his cohort might have had a more harmonious time at university, back in the day. It was a more homogenous space. The range of student experience, and thus the poles of debate, were closer together. Sure, social media has had a ruinous effect on, well, everything, but casting twitter as the sole reason people don’t let old white guys say whatever they want anymore might be lacking in nuance. 

Anyways, back to the panel. So far, so vaguely concerning. On April 10th an announcement (visible only to staff) was put out ‘confirming’ the five panellists, ostensibly representing a cross-section of opinion in Aotearoa. The panel has five members. There are no Māori voices, three are men, and the median age is at least 40. There has since been talk of additions.

Of particular concern to student groups (and Salient) is the presence of Johnathan Ayling on the panel, CEO of the Free Speech Union. I’ll lead you on a whistle-stop tour of him and the FSU’s most egregious activities in recent memory. This will be far from exhaustive, as space in the magazine is limited.

Ayling himself explicitly supported Julian Batchelor during his anti-co governance roadshow. For those lucky people out of the loop, Batchelor spent a vitriolic few months touring the country spewing conspiracy theories about “elite Māori” taking over Aotearoa, comparing ‘Kia Ora’ to ‘Seig Heil’, and describing policies supporting Māori as ‘apartheid.’ Māori people were excluded from his meetings. This generated legitimate and necessary counter-protest. In response, Ayling described Batchelor as “discriminated against”. 

The FSU has also thrown its weight behind actively transphobic, hateful, and violent rhetoric from Graham Linehan and Posie Parker. And for those who are cautious about deplatforming people, Batchelor, Linehan and Parker’s speech fits clearly under UN definitions of hate speech: “[speech] that attacks or uses pejorative or discriminatory language with reference to a person or a group on the basis of who they are”.

The question is why Nic Smith and the University feel Johnathan Ayling’s vocal and consistent support of hate speech is legitimate. Nic Smith is offshore, and unavailable for comment. 

Salient visited the Provost/Acting Vice Chancellor, Bryony James, for a kōrero. The conversation was productive and wide-ranging, and revealed a genuine desire from James and Reece Moores (Director of the Office of the VC) to counter what they see as corrosive and polarising online discourse. They’re worried that productive dialogue has been harmed by social media, and are seeking a remedy.

It’s important to note that their solution is an interesting fix, and one we should be open to. Moores and James stressed the mediated debate format would allow fact-checking. They acknowledged the total absence of Māori voices was an issue, and assured Salient they were working to amend it—so watch this space. The idea is a good one, but this specific panel aint it. 


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