Is Otago University okay with censorship, or not?

If the University of Otago is really committed to free speech, yesterday’s events suggest they’ve a funny way of showing it, writes Andrew Geddis, a law professor at the university.

In late 2015, I sat in a public lecture on climate change where Otago University’s vice chancellor sternly reprimanded the audience for heckling a “climate sceptic” who was posing a long, meandering “question” to the speaker, Sir Geoffrey Palmer.

Universities are a place of free speech and interchange of ideas, she reminded us. The great thing about them is that we can be exposed to things we disagree with, even strongly object to, and learn from that experience. Closing down someone’s expression just because it offends our pre-conceived notions of what is right and proper is anathema to the institution’s fundamental purpose.

(I may be paraphrasing things slightly as the lecture was over two and a half years ago, but I think I’m accurately capturing the spirit of the comment.)

I had myself been pretty irritated by the questioner’s blatant hijacking of the event, but I came to see that the vice chancellor did exactly the right thing. There are increasingly few places left in our self-selecting-bubble society where you have to confront thoughts, ideas and their expression which make you uncomfortable, even angry. If universities are not for doing that – albeit in the context of structured academic inquiry, rather than anyone getting to say anything for any reason – then exactly what are they for?

Unfortunately, recent events on Otago’s campus suggest that perhaps the vice chancellor needs to visit with the university proctor and repeat that 2015 message to him. As recounted on The Spinoff by Joel MacManus, Critic Te Arohi’s editor, on Monday evening staff from Otago’s Campus Watch service took it on themselves to remove and dump into the trash some 500-2000 (numbers differ) copies of the just-printed edition.

The university administration has now distanced itself from this action, telling Twitter that “staff in the proctor’s office” made an “incorrect assumption” about its necessity. The magazine’s removal was, they say, “a mistake and never intended as censorship.”

That’s good, insofar as it goes. A clear apology for the (probably unlawful, but that’s another column) behaviour of people who are, after all, university employees would have been nice to see. A commitment to pay for reprinting the trashed copies would have been even nicer. Maybe these things will come in time.

However, it is worth noting that today’s message from the university is somewhat different in content and tone to yesterday’s, which said a decision “rightly or wrongly” was taken to remove the magazine over concerns “the cover was objectionable to many people, including children who potentially might be exposed to it”. It then concluded with a somewhat passive-aggressive statement that “the university is aware that university staff members, and members of the public, have expressed an opinion that the cover of this issue was degrading to women”.

That actually sort of sounds like censorship to me – removing a publication from campus because you have heard some people may think it is “objectionable” and “degrading”. And while the university seems at pains to stop the buck at the proctor and his staff, the question remains: what on earth made those folk think that this was an acceptable action to take? Because the proctor and his staff do not work in a vacuum; something obviously led them to believe that the appropriate response to hearing “some people find a magazine cover difficult to view” was “gather them all up and throw them in a skip”.

I’d like to think that this would be a matter of quite some concern to a university that is committed to robust, unencumbered and challenging expression of views. After all, the learning experience at university only partly takes place in the lecture halls. It is the general campus environment – the ethos and values of all those working and studying in it – that fully nurtures and grows the values we think universities ought to impart.

If one part of the university – especially a part that wields so much effective power over what can and cannot take place on the campus – is markedly out of step with the institution’s underlying ethos and values, then that is a problem. For an “accident” like this doesn’t just happen. It is brought about by underlying assumptions about how the campus ought to run and what is allowed on it.

One last thing. The university’s initial semi-justification for the removal of the magazine pointed to the potential that children may be exposed to the cover in question.

Well, I suspect my two kids – aged seven and ten – are on Otago’s campus more than just about any others. Partly that’s the unavoidable price of a shared work-life burden, but I like having them here and I think they like it too.

And while they are on campus, they sometimes are exposed to stuff that is not – shall we say – age appropriate. Students loudly talking to one another with language unfit for an august and serious news outlet like The Spinoff. White boys and girls with dreadlocks and nose-rings. Maybe even magazine covers depicting natural bodily processes that we aren’t quite at the point of conversing about just yet.

But you know what? That’s all good. The day that university campuses become safe places that cannot possibly offend seven or ten-year-old children is the day we should turn out their lights and lock their doors. Because then they will have no reason to exist anymore.

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