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AUT cancels 'cancel culture' union meeting

Daphna Whitmore: I was booked to speak at a FSU meeting about my experience with cancel culture as a feminist involved with Speak Up For Women.
Daphna Whitmore
Contributing Writer
April 28th, 2022

OPINION: The Auckland University of Technology has just deplatformed a talk on cancel culture. Yes, you read that right.

The cancellation was instigated by an “Inclusion Officer” (of course it was). 

A bit Orwellian isn’t it? 

I was invited to give a lecture at a Free Speech Union meeting about how a feminist group fought a battle against cancel culture. The meeting room was booked two months ahead without a hitch. It was only when the talk was advertised on Facebook that a couple of people complained to University management. 

The meeting was then cancelled by campus management with just two days' notice. The reason the manager gave was it had been advertised as 'open to the public'.

So the FSU put out a notice that it would be for AUT employees only (which the university is required to respect under employment law). However, this didn’t satisfy the cancellers either because, of course, the real reason for the deplatforming was political difference. Any other union, on any other issue, would have been welcomed with aplomb.

Speak Up For Women is a grassroots feminist movement that was founded in 2018 to discuss a proposed law change that would make it possible to change the sex on one's birth certificate by a simple declaration. We were concerned about safety, fairness, and dignity for women and girls.

Would male prisoners be able to use this as a means to be transferred to women’s prisons? Would this see more males competing in women’s sports? It could also affect the right to have a female caregiver or clinician for sensitive examinations. How would this affect other laws such as the Human Rights Act that included the category of ‘sex’ to protect women from discrimination?

The key concern was that the law change was being done without public consultation. 

Our opponents tried to silence us from the outset. MPs like Jan Logie of the Greens ran the line that “this was not up for debate”. Logie was advocating that MPs could pass laws without public engagement or criticism. 

Any ideology that includes suppression of speech is deeply flawed because the truth can withstand questions, but a lie cannot.

When we wouldn’t be silenced the cancellers labelled SUFW a "hate group" and "transphobic". The other line that was run was that we weren’t really interested in women’s rights and were just a bunch of bigots. 

Speak Up For Women is non-partisan, but most of the members are from the Left. I have a background in championing social change. I have been a union organiser for low-paid women in the hospitality sector. I’ve campaigned for paid parental leave and abortion rights. I have been active in the anti-war movement,  and in the past decade, I’ve been a contributor and an editor for the Redline blog.

Many SUFW members are older feminists who founded women's refuges, campaigned for childcare facilities, established rape crisis centres, pioneered women’s self-defence courses, and campaigned to have rape in marriage criminalised. 

Speak Up For Women ignored the smear campaigns and focused energy on public engagement. We booked meeting halls in council buildings from Auckland to Dunedin. But, repeatedly a handful of complaints from cancel warriors resulted in councils cancelling our bookings. 

So SUFW, with the support of the Free Speech Union, decided to bring urgent legal proceedings in the High Court against Auckland and Palmerston North City Councils in 2021. Auckland Council settled out of court and Palmerston North lost the case and costs were awarded against it. Auckland and Palmerston North Councils acknowledged that it was neither councils’ position that the case was about “hate speech”.The judge too made a point of stating that there was no way Speak Up For Women could be characterised as a hate group. Our nationwide meetings went ahead in council rooms.

This case was crucial as it upheld the right to free speech, which AUT insists on denying.

In the end, our campaign led to the Government backing down and agreeing to a select committee hearing on the changes, and a clause was introduced to the legislation that protected the right to female-only spaces. 

Unfortunately, the old institutions like the civil liberties activists and the trade unions haven’t defended free speech. They are being replaced in this arena by the Free Speech Union which is doing the heavy lifting.

Daphna Whitmore is a long time activist for left wing causes. She is an advocate for workers’ rights, women’s equality and free speech. She is an editor of the blog Redline.