If this is how you propose to defend free speech, then freedom of speech is in grave danger

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,


Massey University,


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.

James Robb

12 responses to “If this is how you propose to defend free speech, then freedom of speech is in grave danger

  1. “rightist forces masquerading under the banner of transgender rights”

    I agree with everything you’ve written but this a deranged attribution. There are plenty of conservative voices who would be allies with women in this battle, but when characterised this way, just throw their hands up in futility.

    • By ‘rightist’ I don’t mean conservative, but something more dangerous. The basis of that characterisation is, on the one hand, their deeply misogynist instincts, and on the other, their appeal to censorship, and beyond that, to intimidation and violence. Both of these things are characteristic of fascist and other ultra-right movements. I don’t use the term ‘fascist’ because the people spearheading this campaign are not a coherent or politically homogeneous current – yet – and I don’t want to jump the gun. But I think that is their tendency.

      I don’t disagree with your statement that there are conservative-minded individuals who could be allies in the fight for women’s rights and for freedom of speech. We live in a world where the inherited categories of left and right in bourgeois politics have strictly limited validity. The greatest assaults on democratic freedoms are coming from the liberal wing of bourgeois politics today – strange to me, but undeniable.

      • Maybe the misogyny element swings it towards fascistic, but for me this assault on free speech and the corruption of language seems deeply Stalinist.

        This strong belief that misogyny is the motivating animus behind the more insane trans rights behaviour is something I struggle with, and it creates another chasm between two groups who could be allied in reaction against it.

        In the old language, isn’t it more likely that we are dealing with some seriously disturbed people here who demand that the world participates in and validates their delusions. Perhaps if people hadn’t been so tolerant in the first instance we wouldn’t be in this situation.

  2. Pingback: In defence of free speech: two letters to Massey University – Redline·

  3. Gordon, I agree when you say “we are dealing with some seriously disturbed people here who demand that the world participates in and validates their delusions”. But I don’t think that in any way invalidates James’ point that we are dealing with misogyny – indeed, violent misogyny. The demand of a group of super-entitled men to have unrestricted access to women-only spaces and their resort to violence and threats of violence when women resist is absolutely misogynist. The depictions of lynchings of “terfs” is extreme vicious misogyny, bringing to mind old KKK etc depictions of lynchings of black Americans who didn’t do what they were told by racist whites. A few days ago there was a trans “protest” outside a women’s meeting in Brighton, in Britain. One observer, a supporter of the ‘Weekly Worker’ paper, described the ‘picket’ as “fascistic”. The mainly male ‘protesters’ screeched abuse at the mainly female audience the entire duration of the meeting, banged on the windows for the entire meeting and did everything they could to physically intimidate the women n the audience. This is not an aberration; the increasing resort to this behaviour is now endemic in this super-misogynist men’s rights movement. To me, it is one of the “morbid symptoms” that Gramsci warned us of when capitalism is rotted to the core but is hanging on and the new society can’t be born. Sadly, swathes of the left have decided to become enablers for misogynist violence.

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