Dr. Sereana Naepi

When actions speak volumes on values: UoA response to Action Zealandia

I have spent a couple of days thinking about Professor McCutcheon’s refusal to remove or speak against Action Zealandia’s stickering of the University of Auckland commons. 

My immediate response is as a Pacific women who is about to be employed at this university is that the VC (on behalf of the university) has shown they are more prepared to defend White Nationalists who have indicated their desire for an ethno-state (Action Zealandia’s own words) freedom of speech then their own Equity Policy. 

As someone who studies universities I have been trying to find the words and theory to engage with this; mainly because what Action Zealandia wants is emotional outrage so that they can point to those who oppose them as illogical and reframe themselves as the victims who had their free speech denied. 

This blog is a little bit of an opportunity for me to try and sort out my thoughts on the matter, an attempt to weave higher education theory on freedom of speech, academic freedom and race theory in higher education. 

The Equity Policy

The University of Auckland’s own Equity policy applies to All staff members, students, visitors and contractors of the University. Simply by being on campus and placing these stickers the individuals involved are subject to the equity policy. The purpose of the equity policy is to “support all members of the University to provide a safeinclusive and equitable study and work environment that enables all people to reach their potential”. 

If the University of Auckland was adhering to its own policy, these stickers would be taken down the individuals located and appropriate actions taken in relation to breaking a university policy. Instead Professor McCutcheon has formed the view “that we should promote free speech wherever we can” which is not a formal university policy and instead is a view that he holds personally. 

This makes the University of Auckland a fantastic example of Sara Ahmed’s theory of non-performative diversity. Where universities will have equity policies they can point to but will rarely enact the policy.  

A recent quote in a stuff article is a great example of this – “A spokeswoman for the university on Tuesday said the views expressed by the group “are what most people would consider abhorrent” and were “totally inconsistent” with the university’s commitment to providing a safe and equitable space.” 

Here the spokesperson is saying that the university is committed to providing a safe equitable space – except as shown by the refusal to remove the stickers when it impinges on freedom of speech (which is not a university policy). By doing this the university makes their equity policy non-performative, it is only a defence mechanism against criticism but not a policy they will enact to protect members of their community.

Two types of freedom at play

1. Freedom to comment

The first is in relation to this blog post – in writing a critique of the university I am using my academic freedom: “freedom to comment in area of expertise” something the university of Auckland has an established stance on which includes an “obligation that we all have as members of a civilised society to treat each other with respect and do no unnecessary harm”. 

The University of Auckland spokesperson points to the importance of debate and a range of opinions. However, as academic institutions we have a responsibility to ensure that these debates are research informed and not opinions. 

I would argue that while Action Zealandia may have articulated their purposes clearly and, in many cases, give off the impression of being well-informed, their website contains no peer-reviewed references and could not be considered to be covered by academic freedom.

Academic freedom is a core tenant to academic debate and is enshrined in Section 161 of the Education Amendment Act 1990. I also would point the University of Auckland to Professor Toope from Cambridge University’s words when he was faced with a similar problem:

“robust debate can scarcely occur, for example, when some members of the community are made to feel personally attacked, not for their ideas but for their very identity.

2. Freedom of Speech

The second, is the freedom that Action Zealandia claim is being taken away from them and the Professor McCutcheon understands himself to be protecting; freedom of speech. Action Zealandia point to the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990 as enshrining their right to freedom of speech. 

It does protect their freedom of expression “Everyone has the right to freedom of expression, including the freedom to seek, receive, and impart information and opinions of any kind in any form” but you will note it does not refer to speech which indicates this group may be heavily influenced by the North American freedom of speech movement.  

Importantly, this same bill also protects minorities rights to “freedom from discrimination” and are further protected by the Human Rights Act 1993 which specifically states that 

“It shall be unlawful for any person—

(a) to publish or distribute written matter which is threatening, abusive, or insulting, or to broadcast by means of radio or television or other electronic communication words which are threatening, abusive, or insulting; or

(b) to use in any public place as defined in section 2(1) of the Summary Offences Act 1981, or within the hearing of persons in any such public place, or at any meeting to which the public are invited or have access, words which are threatening, abusive, or insulting; or

(c) to use in any place words which are threatening, abusive, or insulting if the person using the words knew or ought to have known that the words were reasonably likely to be published in a newspaper, magazine, or periodical or broadcast by means of radio or television,—

being matter or words likely to excite hostility against or bring into contempt any group of persons in or who may be coming to New Zealand on the ground of the colour, race, or ethnic or national origins of that group of persons

It is possible to argue that Action Zealandia breaches throughout their website which is seeking to “build a new generation of capable, young white men who will assume the mantle of re-taking control of our own country”

So, what have I begun to weave with this blog?

  1. The University of Auckland is currently committed to non-performative diversity and equity policies;
  2. The individuals who put these stickers up on campus breached the University of Auckland equity policy;
  3. Groups and individuals are not protected by academic freedom which would enable the debate the University of Auckland refers to;
  4. That the group breach the New Zealand Bill of Rights and Human Rights Act
  5. That the group is not protected by the New Zealand Bill of Rights

So where does that leave me; it leaves me with an understanding of where the University of Auckland’s values lie, and they do not lie with their own policies

Instead the University of Auckland’s values lie in protecting the perceived rights of individuals who are not part of their community, who are establishing a community that actively wishes to see anyone who is not white and male removed from Aotearoa and who hold views that the University of Auckland agree “are what most people would consider abhorrent”  

It seems odd to me that this is the stance the University would take – one where they devalue their own community by placing value on a community whom they claim to completely disagree with. 

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