Salient. An Organ of Student Opinion at Victoria University College, Wellington N.Z. Vol. 21, No. 1. March 13, 1958
Extension of Authority . . — A Step Forward — Freedom of Speech . . — Victoria's Tradition
Extension of Authority . .
A Step Forward
Freedom of Speech . .
Invited to record something in the nature of reminiscences of the "goings on" of students of Victoria University College of the 1920's, I have endeavoured to recall some of the incidents which stand out most vividly in my memory. One's recollections are naturally coloured by one's point of view and I do not pretend that the events which I chronicle are necessarily typical of the experience of all students nor are they necessarily the incidents which others will recall with the same pleasure.
Among the most active of student bodies of those days were the Debating Society and the Free Discussions Club. It was in these bodies, no less than in the classroom, that many students learnt to enquire, to think and to speak. Sometimes when they spoke they expressed views which did not meet with the approval of Authority, but speak they did, and the right to express views that were honestly and sincerely held with the utmost freedom irrespective of whether those views might or might not accord with popular opinion was a right most jealously guarded and stoutly defended.
J. W. Davidson is now the P.S.A. representative on the Government Service Tribunal, and sometime leading light in debating and the Students' Association. During his days at Victoria his name and that of W. A. Sheat were coupled as the two most prominent radicals of their day.
In the Debating Society for some years it had been the practice to include in the year's programme of activities a debate with the Social Democratic Party—an organisation which constituted the Left Wing of the Labour Party. The Social Democratic Party was invited to nominate two speakers to move and second a motion dealing with some aspect of the Socialist objective of the Party. They were opposed by two student speakers and the discussion which followed the addresses of the principal speakers was thrown open both to visiting members of the Social Democratic Party and to students. These debates aroused considerable interest, attracted large audiences and proved the highlight of the debating season.
So successful were the debates with the Social Democratic Party that out of this at a later stage there emerged the practice of inviting visiting speakers from other organisations to participate in debates on subjects in which they were interested. A visiting speaker was invited to support a motion moved by a student member of the Society, while another visiting speaker from an opposing organisation would support the principal student speaker in opposition to the motion. For example, a motion "That the Labour Party is fit to govern" moved by a student was supported by a prominent Labour Member of Parliament, the opposition receiving the support of a member of the Reform Party. A motion of this nature would be regarded as relatively innocuous today but it must be remembered that in those days the Labour Party was not as respectable as it is today. When the vote taken revealed that the opinion of students of the Debating Society was decisively in favour of the motion, this could hardly be expected to be viewed favourably by the Press and other defenders of the existing order of things.
We feel that the responsibility for making the change from a constituent college to a university, which can be more than a mere change in administration, is largely the concern of this and succeeding generations of students. This increased stature is not merely a matter of refraining from treading heavily on the sensitive toes of the burgesses; it should, if the change has any significance at all, be reflected in the added maturity of all graduates. We had our giants, we will go on having them; but the 99 per cent will reflect whether this change means much, anyway.
Another debate which evoked considerable interest centred round a proposal— "That the Navy League should no longer be permitted access to the schools". Although the popular opinion found it impossible to conceive any other point of view than that actively propagated by the Navy League, there were in fact other organisations holding opposing views, such as the New Zealand National Peace Council. That either or both of these organisations should be permitted free access to our schools, making the minds of the children the battleground of opposing political opinions, did not seem to some to be in the best interests of education. Much worse would it be to permit only one philosophy to be presented to children, leaving the opposing opinion entirely unrepresented. A well-known organiser and lecturer for the Navy League supported the opposition in the debate, while an adherent of the opposing point of view to that of the Navy League spoke in favour of the proposal. I well remember the consternation with which the organiser for the League viewed the spectacle of student after student mounting the platform to advocate the exclusion of the Navy League from our schools. To one who had found it so easy to influence the minds of school children it seemed incomprehensible that University students should range themselves in opposition to the Navy League, When the Press published the fact that a vote of students had supported the exclusion of the Navy League from the schools, needless to say orthodox opinion was horrified. One interesting development was that Lord Jellicoe, who was then Governor-General, intimated that he no longer wished to remain patron of the Society. The executive of the Debating Society were not deterred from the policy of encouraging the free expression of opinion.
Another public debate related to a proposal favouring the restoration of full civic rights to conscientious objectors of World War I, supported by J. A. Lee, D.C.M., and Bill Jordan as he then was, both returned servicemen of that war.
Another interesting incident of the period related to the right of free expression of opinion occurred when a student who was a member of the Communist Party—Miss Hetty Weitzel—was convicted for an offence involving the distribution of Communist literature. A number of students who attended the hearing of the case in the Magistrate's Court, feeling that this was, an infringement of the rights of free speech, took up a collection outside the Court and paid the fine. The collection did not escape the notice of the newspaper reporters and publication of the incident, with consequent newspaper editorials and publication of letters from "Pro Bono Publico", "Anti-Communist" and so forth, led to a College enquiry into the distribution of so-called seditious and prohibited literature at the University. The result of the enquiry did nothing to binder the expression of student opinion.
The Free Discussions Club also engaged in the same free expression of opinion. It will be remembered that in the period under review so soon after World War I, there was a Middle East crisis precipitated by a flamboyant cable despatched to the Dominion by Lloyd-George, resulting in the creation of a certain amount of war hysteria. A meeting of the Free Discussions Club called to discuss the situation was addressed by Walter Nash and the late Rev. Dr. Gibb. Both speakers opposed the creation of a war fever and most students who had long been associated with both the Debating Society and the Free Discussions Club similarly opposed the current developments which were obviously calculated to make for another world war. However, as was to be expected when war hysteria is present, a number of students, most of whom had rarely interested themselves in the activities of either club, organised an opposition and, after the chairman had adjourned the discussion to the Gmnaysium when the hour for closing the University buildings had arrived, the opposition developed into something in the nature of what modern politicians would describe as a "rabble rousing" incident involving the use of prepared stink bombs and other methods not associated with the calm objective discussion of a serious situation. Indeed, rumour had it that plans were afoot to capture and duck the principal speakers in the nearest duck pond. They were exciting days.
And so it will be seen that the theme of my recollections is that students of those days who gathered together in such student dubs as those I have mentioned were active in defending and enlarging that most important of the four freedoms— the right to freedom of speech. There were other incidents which serve to illustrate this contention but space does not permit me to recount there.
Victoria College has acquired a new status. Long may its students in their various clubs continue to maintain the tradition of freedom of speech. What matters it if the opinions they express run counter to what has been described as the common sense of popular opinion. The daring speculation of today is the common sense of tomorrow.
—J. W. G. Davidson.