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Auckland University Releases Draft Freedom Of Expression And Academic Freedom Policy

But More Work Is Needed To Protect Academic Freedom And Free Speech

After more than two years of deliberations by a working group on academic freedom and free speech at the University of Auckland (initiated following the Listener 7 saga related to mātauranga Māori in July 2021), the university has released its draft policy for consultation. Unfortunately, it clearly illustrates that more work is needed to ensure the defense of free speech and academic freedom at universities in New Zealand, says Jonathan Ayling, Chief Executive of the Free Speech Union.

“You’d expect the opening paragraph of a policy on freedom of expression and academic freedom to actually be about these crucial liberties. Instead, the University starts by referencing it is an ‘institution where the principles of Te Tiriti o Waitangi shape our culture and are central to our mission.’

“The policy also includes that the University may refuse a guest speaker if they don’t meet particular scholarly standards. But there is no indication as to who will make such a determination and, thus, hold an effective veto power.

“Requirements and claims like these two examples mean this policy is equally likely to be weaponised by those seeking to exclude certain perspectives on the basis of their alleged arguments, not on how the arguments are made. Universities are the very place where ideas, even demonstrably bad ideas, are free to be considered.

“We only know bad ideas are demonstrably bad, because we have been allowed to hear them and debate them.

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“The policy fails to articulate the crucial importance of institutional neutrality - in fact, it provides for expression of “an institutional position” on many matters. Neutrality is increasingly being recognised and implemented in prominent universities around the world (at Harvard University, just yesterday). Academics are the bearers of academic freedom, not universities, and it is not the role of institution, but its constituent members, to advance informed deliberation.

“Draft policies such as this illustrate the weakness of the Government’s proposed vague requirement for universities to implement free speech policies, or face funding restrictions. Where a free speech policy is drafted in such a way that it is equally likely to be weaponised and used against dissenting perspectives within the academy, that very policy is a cure worse than the disease.

“Consultation is open on this policy through to 28 June, and we look forward to supporting staff and students in insisting on stronger protections for their crucial liberties to speech and academic freedom.”

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