ACT wants to cut funding to universities that block free speech

David Seymour has withdrawn a Bill that would have repealed parts of the law which made insulting and offensive speech unlawful.

Instead, he's drafting a new one which would force tertiary institutions to "take all reasonable steps to protect academic freedom and free speech" or face funding cuts, following a number of events being shut down over claims of health and safety fears.

"I think there's a more urgent need now because it's become clear that the most pressing threat to free expression in New Zealand is not our current laws," Seymour told Newshub Nation on Saturday.

"Our current laws are not bad - I think they could be improved, and that's what my previous Bill would have done. The most pressing threat is that some people are genuinely concerned about their health and safety obligations as a person conducting a business undertaking, and they are not sure if they can let people speak on their premises. Others are abusing it."

Since 2018, Massey University has cancelled events, including a speech by former ACT leader Don Brash and the Feminism 2020 summit, on health and safety grounds. Dr Brash attracted protests over his views on race, and trans activists have accused the group behind Feminism 2020 - Speak Up For Women - of being bigots. 

Seymour instead hosted Feminism 2020 at Parliament on Friday, calling it a "delightfully informative and uneventful discussion".

"It's a ridiculous situation. An MP shouldn't be giving sanctuary to feminists to have their views expressed at Parliament in 2019, but that's what happened. 

"We need to clarify the obligations - particularly of the public sector - of health and safety versus freedom of expression," he said, before launching an attack on Massey.

"Massey University are horrific. Jan Thomas, their vice-chancellor, blocked Don Brash from coming to talk - I think about monetary policy - because she didn't like him or his views on other topics. She claimed it was due to health and safety concerns - it was later revealed she had, at the very least, over-egged her claims of how much she'd consulted with police. I think Parliament needs to step in."

He's yet to submit the Member's Bill, with the wording still being drafted. 

"Our long-term future as a country is not going to be helped by suppressing discussion of difficult issues."

After it cancelled the Feminism 2020 event, Massey said it was "committed to the values of academic freedom, the freedom of speech, and the freedom of expression, as values that lie at the very heart of the tradition of a university and academic inquiry".

"However, this event has created significant disruption to our students, staff and university operations, and we cannot accept any further risk or issues, or any risk of potential harm that may impact upon a particularly vulnerable community."

Free speech has been a hot-button issue this year, particularly after the March 15 terror attack in Christchurch and a chaotic visit by far-right extremists Lauren Southern and Stefan Molyneux last year.