The University of Otago has allowed an anti-vaccine lobby group to screen former-doctor Andrew Wakefield’s advocacy piece, ‘Vaxxed’ on campus. (Wakefield was struck off for research misconduct.)
Vaxxed has attracted a number of comments in the media, such as Alison Mau’s If you watch Vaxxed, know you’re buying into the manipulation of a disgraced fraud.
I was surprised to learn the university have allowed it to go ahead given the approach the organisers are taking. You get the impression they feel their hand is forced, that they are obliged to host essentially anything (because of current political thinking on freedom of speech).
I think venues should be able to decline.
Just my humble opinion, but I feel the organisers should have been asked to choose between a private screening for their members only at a private venue (i.e. not the university), or an open public event, dropping the secrecy, allowing people to register without giving their email or phone number, reworking the Q&A to include representatives from health/medicine, and allowing open discussion.
Universities should stand for critical thinking, not advocacy or evangelism.
For me, free speech is about that I am able to express my views, even if others may not agree or may even object strongly.
It is not about venues being obliged to host everything that comes their way. Venues should be able to decline if the topic or style of presentation does not suit them or what they represent.
Nor does it mean that someone can express views without being criticised. Part and parcel of publicly expressing a view is that others have the right to express their opinion in reply. True free speech does not suppress or avoid those responses.
Without investigating the legal obligations of NZ universities, I would like to have thought that universities are, or should be, places that encourage open discussion.
If a member of the public or group approaches the university wishing to use a lecture theatre, it should not be a presentation that tries to pre-select or ‘filter’ for a ‘preferred’ audience, recruit attendees in a way that makes others who might attend uncomfortable (i.e. tries to put off “outsiders”), or, even, to restrict their attending. It should be an open public event.
Similarly, discussion should not be constrained to a particular viewpoint.
Put another way, events focused on advocacy or evangelism shouldn’t be hosted at public institutions. Conversely, organisations wanting to do that should use private venues.
‘Controlling’ events is the style of the likes of, say, Scientology, and other ‘closed’ communities.
The anti-vaccine lobby organising these Vaxxed events has gone a fair way in this direction. In a follow-up to my alerting the university of the screening, I wrote to them:
I suspect the university may not want to be seen to be suppressing free speech or discussion. A key point is that this [the anti-vaccine group’s event] should be free speech.
The organisers –
– are withholding the specific location of the venue until 3 hours before the event,
– are ensuring that those wishing to attend must apply only through their anti-vaccine advocacy organisation; this has the effect of screening those attending, and intimidating those outside of their organisation,
– have arranged that the subsequent Q&A answer session be limited to their views, with no input from medical or health science; the event is to advocate their views, rather than educate or genuinely discuss openly
Furthermore, it has been reported that the organiser’s introductory remarks at the Auckland screening included remarks to the effect that “if there was any ‘trouble’ during the movie they had men stationed all around the cinema” — intimidating anyone who might raise concerns about the content.
Universities are public institutions. They should stand for public discussion, not controlled advocacy or evangelism, and they ought to be able to decline events that they don’t think are in the wider public interest.
You can present controversial subjects — if you engage in honest critique of them. This isn’t that.
I would have have given them two options: either open up the event properly, restructuring it to allow open attendance and open critique, or move the event to a private venue where they can run it in their desired (controlling) fashion.
Note that none of this is about the specific content. I haven’t needed to mention it. How events are run matters too. I’m disappointed that the comments to media and memo to university staff does not acknowledge issues with how the event is being run, and I’m left wondering if the those that decided on this were aware of them. (I tried alert them to this.)
There is an EventBrite listing for the event. If you wish to attend, I suggest making up a temporary email you can give them that you can later delete, and not give out your phone number.
The kindest reading of the organisers’ approach that I can make is that a small (and let’s be honest, amateur) group has piled on up a list of things they might do while showing the film, and ended up with a tangled mess where they are both want to show it to “others”, but also want to run it as if it were a private screening for their group.
The organisers should really have decided which of the two they wanted to do, one or the other. You simply can’t have these two both ways at once. Either run private screenings only for their members, drawing attendees from their internal mailing list. In that case they want to look to private venues as hosts, not public institutions. Or run proper open public events – without the secrecy stuff or trying to ‘encourage” discussion to be limited to their views. Then they might look to public institutions as venues.
There’s also the aspect of a recruitment/marketing drive by asking that attendees give up their email address or phone number.
I’m a bit surprised the university didn’t take the opportunity to encourage the organisers to take the event elsewhere: since the organisers are not disclosing the location until a few hours before the event, it wouldn’t have affected the event to have moved it elsewhere.
I feel venues should be able to take a stance on events they don’t feel comfortable with. Certainly better than releasing statements where they both say they will host an event, and in the same briefing condemn it.
It should be reasonable for the university to take what it said of the event, and decline to host it:
We believe the makers and distributors of this movie are scare-mongering, and behaving in an anti-child manner, showing no regard for the health and well-being of children.
Fair reasons to decline to host an event, I’d have thought. (You could also apply these words to the organisers, too.)
I also can’t help wondering to what extent current fussing over free speech in universities has affected the decision; the response can be read as playing along with current politics.
The current political notion that (some) institutions “must” host anything doesn’t stack up to me. There’s a freedom for people to decline hosting something too. And if an organisation finds no-one wants to host their event, the community has spoken. That’s a freedom too.
A defining point is how something is to be presented. Does it allow for advocacy or evangelism to rule over open critique and critical thinking?
Why can a university not say something like –
We are a public institution, one committed to open discussion. As an academic organisation, open, honest critique lies at the centre of what we do. We cannot accept advocacy groups or evangelism. Please find a private venue.
I understand a number of staff are protesting the decision.
There is much more that could be said. I could cover the movie itself, for example.
It’s already extensively reviewed elsewhere, e.g. Reviewing Andrew Wakefield’s VAXXED: Antivaccine propaganda at its most pernicious. (It’s long; that’s David Gorski’s style. Grab some refreshments, put your feet up, etc.) Vaxxed – a guide to Andrew Wakefield’s fraudulent film has a forceful style, but the bullet-point lists offer useful background in a concise way. The Guardian reviewer described it as a ‘conspiracy film’. There are plenty of other criticism of the film to be found.
No-one seems to rate it as a particularly good film. As David Gorski points out, it would probably have long disappeared into oblivion like other conspiracy films if Robert Niro hadn’t tried to force it into the Trifecta Film Festival by using his position to bypass the selection process, and the fuss that created.
(As a lighter aside: In checking out a prospective read—Jasper Fforde’s Lost in a Good Book—I encountered on page 1 the term ‘docuganda’, a portmanteau of documentary and propaganda that might be an appropriate description of Vaxxed.)
I could address points raised by Mark Sainsbury, but perhaps in a later piece. One thing at a time and all. A key point is one I’ve made above: it’s is not just that they be able to have an event, but how they run it, and to give opportunity to venues to decide if they want to be hosts.
Update: A press release is now available on the university website.
Public domain. Originally from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Public Health Image Library (identification number #9400), sourced from wikipedia.
Some of the tips to where the event was to be hosted come from other’s noting comments by the Dunedin organisers in The ConTrail, a forum for people who believe that aircraft vapour trails are chemical sprays governments are poisoning the earth with, conspiracies about electronic and magnetic frequency waves, and a number of similar themes related to health and ‘well-being’. I subsequently found the EventBrite listing for the Dunedin event, which caused concern about how the event was to be run and prompted me to alert Otago University.
My connection with this was learning that the movie was likely to be screened at University of Otago. I alerted the university to this, and was met with a quick response. I subsequently forwarded some suggestions for how they might respond.
- How they are described in wikipedia. Some refer to themselves as ‘pro safe vaccine’, but I’ve very rarely seen them advocate for vaccines despite that it’s trivial to offer a long list of vaccines with excellent safety records. (Some do want monovalent vaccines be used, but not on the basis of sound science.) The word game appears silly. It’s also worth bearing in mind that the university found out after the group was presenting the event well after they registered the use of a lecture theatre.
- From an attendee at the Auckland event, written in NZ Skeptics, Closed Group. Used with permission. UPDATE: a transcript has that portion of the introduction as being: “I also want to warn people in the audience that if you want to make trouble, we have people at posts stationed throughout the theatre. Big strong people.”
- I suspect it’s actually illegal to force people to disclose emails in order to subscribe to an event in NZ.
- Memo to university staff – will be added if/once I get a clearing from the University of Otago. (They released a copy to me, but with no accompanying statement as to if it was available for wider distribution.)