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Dunne Speaks: Free Speech heads for the abyss

The debate around free speech and what constitutes it has become toxic and almost irrational. Increasingly, it seems virtually impossible to be able to offer an opinion on it without being labelled as some sort of extremist by one side or the other. It has become ridiculous, and in the interests of maintaining a free and open society everyone needs to pull back quickly from the fast approaching abyss.

Yet, now it seems one of our universities is moving down the same path. Since Medieval times, universities have been seen as bastions of academic freedom, places where great issues and theories of science, medicine, the arts and philosophy, and religion, can be expostulated, tested and embraced or dismissed as appropriate. To reinforce this principle, the Magna Charta Universitatum was established in 1988. Since then over 800 of the world's leading universities in more than 80 countries have signed it, although, interestingly, neither Massey University, nor any other New Zealand university appears to have done so. All should take immediate action to remedy this.

Generally, people have looked to the great institutions of state - the government, the courts and the places of higher learning - to uphold freedom of thought, and expression. However, it has been the contrary actions of public institutions and officials (the Mayor of Auckland in the first place and now the Vice Chancellor of Massey University) that have fuelled the current debate in New Zealand. Both may argue their actions were motivated by a concern for the greater good, but the difficulty with that defence is its very subjectivity - their concern is not about upholding the greater good, per se, but rather their perception of the greater good.

That is where this argument becomes so difficult. Everyone will argue that their actions or words are promoted by a desire to achieve the greater good as they see it. It is impossible to draw an absolute line which is why even political parties as organised vehicles for the propagation and implementation of certain ideas come and go in a democratic society, as the public will changes. And that is why it is vital that public officials should adopt an air of Nelsonian blindness on issues of free speech, rather than attempt to impose their own judgment on its expression. It may well be a public meeting today, but it is a short step from there to the work of art in a public gallery, or a play in a public theatre they take offence to.

Free speech, by its definition, cannot be constrained. It is an expression of our free will as human beings, the right to be right and the right to be wrong, a capacity that distinguishes humanity from every other form of life. Where free speech poses a risk to public order, the rule of law should apply, as in every other situation. It never should be left to the arbitrary judgment and prejudice of any particular official to determine.

Tolerance and respect for diversity are the hallmarks of a mature society. Allowing the free expression of a wide range of diverging views is a healthy way of enabling citizens to reach their own conclusions on the credibility or otherwise of the views being expressed. Preventing such expression on the grounds it might offend or incite is nothing but the action of the cowardly and the intolerant.

In the wake of the Charlie Hebdo massacre in France in 2015, many French citizens sought solace in the words of the great free speech philosopher, François-Marie Arouet, better known by his pen-name Voltaire. His 18th century Treatise on Tolerance argued strongly for toleration of religious belief, while reserving the right to argue strenuously against it, and denouncing religious fanaticism of all stripes. “Tolerance has never provoked a civil war; intolerance has covered the Earth in carnage,” he wrote.

The Mayor of Auckland and the Vice Chancellor of Massey University and any others wishing to follow their path should reflect long and hard upon those words.


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