Wednesday 29 May 2024

Campus speech

Victoria University's panel on free speech at universities seemed designed to be tedious, providing the smallest target for criticisms of the university. 

Rather than any discussion among panelists, we heard a series of statements in response to less-than-useful questions from Corin Dann. 

Because of Dann's framing, a pile of discussion was around who should be allowed to speak on campus.

Dann could not be expected to know that there has been a standard solution to this. Or at least there was for the period I was on campus at Canterbury. It worked well. Michael Johnston briefly alluded to that standard solution, but that didn't stop the 'but who should be allowed to speak on campus' bit. Or "Should someone be allowed on campus to debate cutting off Corin Dann's head" - as one of the panelists put it. 

Someone can speak on campus if they have been invited to do so by a member of the academic community

An academic can invite guest speakers to present to their class. 

Departments invite guest speakers to present working papers in regular workshops. Ours were on Friday afternoons, followed by excellent beer at the Staff Club. 

If an academic wants to host a guest speaker for a more public event, they need to get a room booking. At one point that was done through the Department because we controlled a couple of our own lecture theatres; later, that required centralised room booking. But the academic's name was on the booking; the academic had thought the speaker worth hearing out.

If a student group wanted to host a guest speaker, they could do it at the student union, or they could ask a member of faculty to book one of the lecture theatres. I think the student union restricted that to recognised student groups - but there was a broad set of recognised student groups, from ACT On Campus to Maoists. 

In any case, the guest was there because a member of the academic community thought they were worth hearing. 

For plenary speakers where there might be resourcing issues, or if it were part of a University named lecture series, that would need sign-off from whoever ran that series. Not getting signoff didn't mean the person couldn't speak on campus. It just meant they wouldn't speak in that slot. If other ways of financing a visit could be worked out, the academic could just book a room. 

The test shouldn't be some big public discourse about who is or isn't worth hearing, or who is or isn't presenting misinformation. 

There was useless, tedious discussion of whether Julian Bachelor (an activist favouring one reading of the implications of the Treaty of Waitangi) should be allowed to talk on campus. 

The only test should be whether a member of the academic community thinks he is worth hearing. Not whether his views are respected in, say, the Faculty of Law. I expect they think he's nuts, and they could well be right. It isn't my field. 

But I know that the Accounting Department regularly hosted speakers that folks in econ/finance thought were barking mad. And one fine Accounting colleague would often send all-college emails about how all of economics is wrong, as proven by their guest speaker who didn't have a clue about the content of intermediate micro, just that it was 'neoliberal'. 

The test wasn't whether we thought the speaker was an idiot, or wrong, or providing misinformation. Some of the Accounting guests were all three - at least in the view of the econ tea room. 

The test was whether the people in Accounting thought that the speaker was worth hearing. 

An equilibrium where we would have gotten to veto speakers that we thought were idiots and they got to veto speakers that they thought were idiots would have been terrible. 

So there's a simple answer on the Bachelor, or anyone else, question. They should be allowed to speak on campus if a member of the academic community has asked them to do so. 

That raises a separate question: would faculty still feel safe in inviting speakers that they think are very much worth hearing, but that might draw complaint?


After the session, I walked back toward the train station with a couple of Vic academics that I ran into outside the event. 

They noted that they’d been approached by a journo for their views.

They said they’d politely declined.

They also said that they hadn’t told the journo the reason for declining. Namely, that Vic is not a safe place for freely airing one’s views on such matters. They did not expect the Uni to have their backs if there were pushback, and they were surprised how many of their colleagues in the audience appeared supportive of restricting speech on campus. 

1 comment:

  1. The test you propose is elegant in its simplicity, Eric. I think it has a lot of merit.

    Something I hadn’t thought about, which your position seems to imply, is that right to invite speakers to the university is part of the what ‘members of the academic community’ (broadly defined to include staff and students) are entitled to as part of their membership. I like it. It gives effect to the ‘listener’s rights’ component of the freedom of expression.

    Thanks to you and others present at the who have recorded their observations and reflections so close after the event.