Free speech statement ‘best in the country’

Photo: ODT files
Photo: ODT files
An activist group has praised the University of Otago for its wide-ranging statement on free speech, saying it is the "best in the country".

The statement, which was approved at yesterday’s university council meeting, said free speech was the lifeblood of a university.

"It enables the exploration of ideas, the challenging of assumptions and the uncovering of truth through open exchange.

"It allows students, teachers and researchers to know better the variety of beliefs, theories and opinions in the world. Only through a preparedness to challenge, question and criticise ideas can progress in understanding take place."

It also said the university would "not restrict debate or deliberation simply because the ideas put forth are thought by some to be offensive, unwise, immoral or wrong-headed".

"It is for the members of the university community — its students and staff — to make those judgements for themselves."

Free Speech Union spokesman Jonathan Ayling, who previously criticised the university for having the debate about the statement in public-excluded, said his organisation was pleased with the outcome.

"We believe it is the best statement on free speech at any university in the country, and we hope it will set a tone going forward for other universities.

"Articulating the crucial importance of free speech for the function of the university, and of tolerance and diversity of opinion, we welcome this policy, and congratulate the university on its dedication to this freedom."

"We believe it is the best statement on free speech at any university in the country, and we hope...
"We believe it is the best statement on free speech at any university in the country, and we hope it will set a tone going forward for other universities" — Free Speech Union spokesman Jonathan Ayling. Photo: supplied
The statement also allowed the university a get-out clause in that it said: "the university accepts no duty to provide a space for those who are not members of its community to advance their ideas or theories in ways which fundamentally undermine the university’s character as an institute of higher learning".

The university’s support for free speech carried with it corollary responsibilities.

"Although students, staff and visitors are free to criticise, contest and condemn the views expressed on campus, they should not obstruct, disrupt, or otherwise interfere with the freedom of others to express those views," the statement said.

Otago University philosophy professor James Maclaurin, who helped lead the engagement process on the statement, said it had been several months in the making.

"A lot of universities have statements on free speech — we think it’s an essential thing for the university to be a champion of free speech.

"We also thought it would be good to get out in front of the government’s plans to require universities to have policies on free speech."

Prof Maclaurin said the meetings and engagements were "oversubscribed".

"That’s a long process — we tried to get a sense of what it is people are worried about when it comes to free speech issues.

"It really isn’t one thing; it’s two questions joined together.

"It’s about what we want to talk about; and how we want people to speak to one another."

Speech in the university was "in the lab, in the lecture theatre, in the lunchrooms" but social media had led to highly polarised conversations, he said.

"It’s important that we have clarity. It needed to be a short statement that people could understand where we stand.

"There’s lots of downstream work — the university has a big job now about making free speech more visible across the departments, and trying to get people excited about it.

"When you look at our leaders of science and arts and scholarship, they have always had unconventional or unorthodox views."

The "get out" clause applied only to those outside the university wanting to rent space.

"It doesn’t apply to students and staff or people the university invites — it’s to ensure the university has some controls over people who ring them up and want to rent the space.

"This is not about what staff and students want to say or do. If they want to research or do something controversial, go for it."

Prof Maclaurin said the university could develop a course or offer workshops on free speech.

"I think it’s going to be a great thing."