Saturday, 20 April 2019

An Australasian Disease

Free Speech, Or Orwellian Groupthink

Freedom of speech is under attack in New Zealand.  In one significant instance a university, led by its Vice-Chancellor, prevented students from listening to Dr Don Brash.  Once again the issues involved alleged climate change.  Dr Brash speaking also, allegedly, would have resulted in students and academics at the university feel uncomfortable, challenged, and threatened.  Hence, Brash's speech was shut down and Brash was told to shut up.  This is Free Speech in NZ in 2018.  

Thankfully there was a backlash from those who are a bit more sophisticated than the common herd. 

It did not escape notice at the time that the Vice-Chancellor of Massey University, Professor Jan Thomas was an Australian import.  It seems that Australian Universities may well be riddled with those who believe that only officially sanctioned views be promoted by staff. 

The most recent case to hit the headlines (again) is that of Professor Peter Ridd, formerly of James Cook University.
  Dr Ridd was dismissed from his position because the authorities did not appreciate his public criticism of the "science" of climate change.  Dr Ridd responded by taking the University to court.   And the result?  This, from the Guardian
James Cook University is considering its legal options after the federal circuit court ruled it had unlawfully sacked a professor who had criticised scientific research about the climate change impact on the Great Barrier Reef.

Peter Ridd, who was the head of the physics department at the institution from 2009 until 2016, took legal action against his dismissal.

Judge Salvatore Vasta ruled on Tuesday the 17 findings made by the university, the two speech directions, the five confidentiality directions, the no satire direction, the censure, the final censure and the termination of Ridd’s employment were all unlawful. 
The Judge did not mince any words.
Judge Vasta said the university has not understood the whole concept of intellectual freedom.  “[The] university has ‘played the man and not the ball’,” he said.

“Intellectual freedom is so important. It allows academics to express their opinions without fear of reprisals. It allows a Charles Darwin to break free of the constraints of creationism. It allows an Albert Einstein to break free of the constraints of Newtonian physics. It allows the human race to question conventional wisdom in the never-ending search for knowledge and truth.”
The argument will undoubtedly continue.  But these are important matters. Let's hope academic institutions are getting the message.  Free speech necessarily involves a commitment to tolerate uncomfortable and unpopular positions for the far, far greater good.  The alternative necessarily devolves into Orwellian Groupthink. 

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