Refusal to publish NZ academic's book is a worrying blow for free speech

STUFF
High-profile people are making controversial statements - but is it free speech or hate speech?

OPINION: We were concerned to read about UK publisher Emerald Press' refusal to publish a book it had previously scheduled for publication by James Flynn, a professor at the University of Otago. Flynn's book wasn't "banned", but we believe the episode raises some important issues for New Zealand universities and for the country as a whole.

Flynn's book, originally titled In Defence of Free Speech: The University as Censor, argues (in the words of Emerald Press' 2019 catalogue) "that freedom to debate is essential to the development of critical thought", provides a brief overview of recent failures to uphold free speech on the part of universities, and defends open discussions about controversial topics such as race, gender and IQ.

Ironically enough, though, the press eventually decided the book was too controversial to publish. Why? The email Flynn received from Tony Roche, Emerald's publishing editor, and which he has excerpted in an article for online magazine Quillette, reveals two main reasons.

James Flynn, emeritus professor of political studies of Otago University. A British publisher 
that was scheduled to publish his book In Defence of Free Speech: The University as Censor has changed its mind, citing Britain's strong laws against hate speech. (File photo)
Supplied
James Flynn, emeritus professor of political studies of Otago University. A British publisher that was scheduled to publish his book In Defence of Free Speech: The University as Censor has changed its mind, citing Britain's strong laws against hate speech. (File photo)

The first is that the UK now has strong laws against "hate speech" that make it very difficult for supposed perpetrators to defend themselves. As Roche writes to Flynn: "Clearly you have no intention of promoting racism, but intent can be irrelevant. For example, one test is merely whether it is 'likely' that racial hatred could be stirred up as a result of the work."

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The second is that there is now climate of intolerance, especially on social media, that can fan indignation in a way that makes it increasingly likely that "hate speech" laws will be used against publishers. Roche states this quite clearly, telling Flynn "the potential for circulation of the more controversial passages of the manuscript online … represents a material legal risk for Emerald".

Protesters in favour of free speech at Massey University, after Don Brash was banned from speaking there last year.
DAVID UNWIN/STUFF
Protesters in favour of free speech at Massey University, after Don Brash was banned from speaking there last year.

What does this have to do with New Zealand? Flynn is a New Zealand academic, who came to this country in the 1960s after – another irony – leaving the United States because he felt persecuted for his social democratic views. So the fact that he has been unable to publish a book on free speech should already be ringing alarm bells for anyone who cares about freedom of expression in our universities.

But the episode also illustrates two further points. One is that "hate speech" laws can have serious detrimental effects on our ability to have grown-up discussions about serious issues. This is especially the case when they privilege people's reactions to speech rather than the intentions of the speaker – something Justice Minister Andrew Little is reportedly considering in a reform to New Zealand's "hate speech" laws.

The other is that a culture of indignation can make the climate for open discussions even worse. Some might find it hard to believe that moderate, friendly New Zealanders will start regularly mobbing people whose views they disagree with online, asking for their sacking or worse. But that is very much the reality in other parts of the world. 

We would invite New Zealanders to reflect on whether they want the discussion of important public issues to be held to ransom by outrage in this way. We would also urge Little to think very carefully about the possible knock-on effects that strengthened "hate speech" laws might have for free expression in this country.

If he does not, Flynn will not be the last New Zealand academic – or the last New Zealander – to have their right to express their views effectively curtailed.

* Dr James Kierstead is senior lecturer in classics, Victoria University of Wellington; Vinayak Dev is graduate teaching assistant in psychology, University of Auckland; Dr Michael Johnston is associate dean, Faculty of Education, Victoria; Jamin Halberstadt is professor of psychology, University of Otago; Maryanne Garry is professor of psychology, University of Waikato; Dr Andy Vonasch is lecturer in philosophy, University of Canterbury.

The Dominion Post