The exchange of ideas is fundamental to academic scholarship. Institutions, such as universities, that aspire to progress scholarship must therefore avoid placing inappropriate constraints on the freedom to express and contest those ideas.
In New Zealand, as elsewhere, there has been, and continues to be, a renewed debate on freedom of speech as it relates to university campuses. We have witnessed it in full force recently in the debate about mātauranga Māori and science, which was sparked by views expressed by seven academics at the University of Auckland. This important debate is of course much broader and deeper than a discussion about the rights of academics to express their views. It is also about relationships, honouring Te Tiriti and asking fundamental questions about what kind of future we want for our nation. Perhaps why we have seen such an extraordinary outpouring of diverse comments and opinions in recent weeks – these are profoundly important national issues and they resonate globally.
For a university such as ours, however, questions about freedom of expression and academic freedom are inescapable, even (or perhaps especially) in complex debates. Our academics and students must be free to advance and challenge ideas, even controversial ones, without fear of being attacked or 'silenced'. Indeed, providing a safe forum for this to happen is one of the most important functions of a university.
Globally, we see and read about multiple campaigns, some very effective, aimed at preventing certain types of speech and certain speakers. The 'Chicago Statement', the University of Chicago's policy on free speech which has been co-signed and adopted by dozens of universities, vetoes any restriction on debate of ideas, even ideas considered "offensive, unwise, immoral or wrong-headed".
Compared with the vast majority of the world's workplaces, universities have extraordinary freedom of speech.
The University of Auckland has a steadfast commitment to advancing knowledge and understanding; understanding that is underpinned by an openness to considering ideas that challenge existing belief structures.
To this end, we create an environment that is conducive to the free expression of such ideas, and importantly, one that facilitates the critical evaluation of the same. Having noted this, it is also important to state that freedom of expression is not absolute. It is limited by legal restrictions that prohibit certain forms of expression – defamation being one example. In this vein, the dehumanisation or vilification of marginalised groups has no legitimate place in society or within our institution. Essentially, critiquing the ideas, not the person.
Herein lies a tension.
University leaders are tasked with responsibly discharging the core university mission and purpose – freedom of speech is one element of that purpose – whilst at times imposing practical limitations on opportunities for expression, for example by limiting access to venues.
Beyond these constraints, freedom of expression is unfettered within universities, which, like the University of Auckland, foster and critique a multitude of ideas.
The freedom to express ideas is constrained neither by their perceived capacity to elicit discomfort, nor by presuppositions concerning their veracity. However, it needs to be clarified that allowing the expression of an idea does not imply endorsement by the University. This has been our position in the debate about mātauranga Māori and science. Our seven academics were entirely free to express their views, however the University was also free to disagree with those views. That does not mean the University is censoring or trying to silence our academics, it is merely making clear that such views are not representative of the myriad of views within the institution; and that the University may at times disagree with the views expressed by its academics. That is healthy in a university.
The vigorous (even heated) exchange of conflicting opinions does not weaken the principles of freedom of expression, it strengthens them. Nor does the fact that diverse ideas can be expressed within the academy with equivalent freedom mean that these ideas all have equivalent merit, or are deserving of equal esteem.
As with many ideas aimed at advancing knowledge and understanding, some lead to the revelation of new truths, progressing knowledge in important ways that contribute to the betterment of society. Others may be ill-considered fallacies with no substantive basis in fact.
What is imperative here, is that assuring the freedom to express ideas allows our University to expose them to rigorous appraisal. The continuous disputation of ideas is to be expected and encouraged. The search for wisdom must be fearless. We must hold to account ideas that compromise reason, contradict knowledge and undermine truth, but we must also allow those ideas to be freely expressed, no matter how muddle-headed we think they are.
Affording scrutiny to freely expressed ideas, to distinguish those that have substance and value from those that do not, enables institutions like ours to deliver the benefits of our intellectual scholarship to the society we serve, by empowering rational and well-informed public discussion.
Universities also enjoy 'academic freedom', which is different from 'freedom of expression' and is also protected by statute in this country. It is defined as "the freedom of academic staff and students, within the law, to question and test received wisdom, to put forward new ideas and to state controversial or unpopular opinions".
Academic freedom is vital to the entire enterprise of universities: to the production, interrogation and dissemination of knowledge. Like all large and complex public sector institutions, universities also have to operate in shifting environments. Recent global trends have attempted to enshrine academic freedom in workplace agreements, in codes of conduct, and ethical guides. This has not been an easy task, and as you might anticipate, arguments presented with regard to written codes of any description are endless – particularly when scholars are concerned! So, what to do? What is the solution? Or rather, what is our best defence?
Appealing to common sense doesn't work, because sense and sensibilities also shift – sometimes very dramatically, at individual and collective levels. There is no easy answer; and that is why the debate is so important, and one that needs to be worked at, respectfully, and with integrity.
So, a call to action to institutions of higher learning. We are the exemplars. Our employees have freedoms that are not shared by employees of governments or most of private industry.
Our best defence is a cultural one. We should speak bravely and freely, but with respect, reflection, deliberation and intentionality. This is fundamental to universities; it is also a much broader issue for societies both in how we deal with freedom of expression and in how we rehabilitate an environment of respectful debate and dialogue.
- Professor Dawn Freshwater is Vice-Chancellor at the University of Auckland