An open letter to Jan Thomas, Vice-chancellor of Massey University.
Massey University in Wellington is the venue for an event on 13 November called Feminism 2020, organised by Speak Up For Women (SU4W). The university has come under pressure from rightist forces masquerading under the banner of transgender rights to break its contract with the meeting organisers and cancel the booking. At the time of writing, the university has resisted the pressure to cancel the venue booking. However, on 27 September it released a statement which can only be read as paving the way for cancelling the meeting. This open letter was written response to that statement.
Note added 9 October: in view of the continuing tide of misinformation in the mainstream media surrounding this event, Speak Up For Women issued a press statement answering the slanders one by one. It can be read here.
To Jan Thomas,
Dear Ms Thomas,
I commend Massey University’s stated commitment to free speech, and in particular, its decision to host the event Feminism 2020 in face of criticism and pressure to shut the meeting down.
However, the statement released by the University, supposedly in explanation and defence of that decision, was anything but commendable. On the contrary, it signifies an unwarranted caving in to the pressure to shut the meeting down, and paves the way for reversing the correct original decision. It is a cowardly and disgraceful statement. If this is how you propose to defend free speech, then freedom of speech is in grave danger.
After making the customary platitudes about “our commitment to diversity and inclusion”, the statement makes it very clear that “we do not in any way share the views of the speakers of this event.”
That is your right. But I find on the organisers’ website that SU4W believes that “Women are adult human females; girls are human female children. Women and girls have the right to live free of violence, including sexual abuse or violence. Women and girls have the right to organise and gather in safe, sex-segregated spaces.”
Are these the views that you “do not in any way share”? In that case, I must wonder about your proclaimed “commitment to diversity and inclusion”, since it appears not to be inclusive of the half of humanity that is female.
But perhaps you are not basing your statement concerning the views of the speakers on what those speakers say for themselves. Perhaps your energetic disavowal of their views is based on ideas falsely attributed to them by those who are trying to shut the meeting down?
In that case, I must wonder about the University’s commitment to factual accuracy and truth, which, I’m sure you would agree, must also be a “fundamental tenet of a university.”
In any case, I challenge you to find anything objectionable in any of the many published writings of Meghan Murphy, Holly Lawford-Smith or any of the other speakers, or anything on their websites or the website of SU4W. You may find in those places ideas that you disagree with, but you will not find a single word that in any way promotes discrimination, or prejudice, or violence against transgender people.
The safety and well-being of Massey University students and staff are indeed under threat. But not from the feminists or the ideas they espouse. Let me say clearly what the university seems strangely incapable of recognising: No person’s safety and well-being is ever endangered simply by being confronted with ideas which they find disagreeable. If you cannot recognise this simple truth, you will be forever helpless to defend free speech. And, I might add, you will be unable to function as an institution of learning, since students who only encounter ideas which they already know and approve of will, by definition, be learning nothing new.
No – free speech, academic freedom, and freedom of expression are not “nuanced”. It would be more accurate to say that these fundamental rights are under sustained attack, and nowhere more so than in the very institutions to which many people look to uphold them – the universities. It is your responsibility as Vice-chancellor to confront these attacks.
The threat to the safety of students, staff and the wider public comes exclusively from those who are attempting to get the meeting shut down. One only need look at the scene outside a similar event a week ago in the UK for evidence of that, with protestors hurling abuse and intimidation at people attempting to find their way into the meeting.
Make no mistake, from this moment on, the eyes of the world will be on Massey University. The credibility of the university and its reputation as an institution of learning are on the line. If Massey continues to capitulate to the self-appointed censors, if it fails to defend freedom of speech, the respect it currently enjoys in the wider community will crumble like a sandcastle in the incoming tide.
I urge you to learn from the sorry experiences of the American universities that have been down this path already, and are now held in contempt and ridicule by their own communities.
I urge you to stop kowtowing to the censorship brigade, with such contemptible gestures as festooning the campus with their flags and donating money to their organisations. They will not be appeased. They will be satisfied with nothing less than total capitulation and the wrecking of the meeting.
Let Massey University be the one which turns and confronts the threats to freedom of speech, academic freedom and freedom of expression at their source.