Tuesday, September 17, 2019

It now falls to private citizens to defend free speech

(This column was published in The Dominion Post and on Stuff.co.nz on September 5. I omitted to put it on my blog at the time but I'm correcting that oversight now. The court's decision is still pending.) 

A court case with vital implications for freedom of speech has been played out this week in the High Court at Auckland.

The proceedings were initiated by the Free Speech Coalition, which is challenging the lawfulness of a decision by Regional Facilities Auckland – an arm of Auckland Council – to cancel an appearance last year by the controversial Canadian speakers Lauren Southern and Stefan Molyneux.

RFA, which controls the venue where the Canadians were to speak, says the action was taken for safety and security reasons after it became apparent that protesters might target the event. But the coalition claims the cancellation was an act of political censorship – and that even if there were genuine safety concerns, which it disputes, RFA shouldn’t have bowed to unsubstantiated threats of disruption.

The coalition argues this set a dangerous precedent whereby a mere threat of trouble can be used to shut down events that protesters disapprove of. This tactic, which is sometimes referred to as the “heckler’s veto”, was also used to justify the ludicrous decision by Massey University’s vice-chancellor to bar the former National Party leader Don Brash.

The real reason for the cancellation of the Brash speech was subsequently revealed to be the vice-chancellor’s objection to his opinions. The Free Speech Coalition suspects there was a similar motive for RFA’s decision not to allow Southern and Molyneux to use the Bruce Mason Centre at Takapuna.

An interesting aspect of the Auckland court proceedings, which took place before Justice Pherose Jagose, was the involvement of the Human Rights Commission as an “intervener” – a status sometimes granted to a person or organisation with no direct interest in the proceedings but with expertise that might help the court in its deliberations.

Anyone expecting the commission to deliver a resounding defence of free speech would have been disappointed. Its 38-page submission canvassed legal issues and precedents but left open the question of whether RFA was justified in denying the Canadians a speaking venue. That will be for the judge to decide.

The commission did, however, say the right to free speech is not absolute, and pointed to a Court of Appeal finding that constraints on “hateful and dangerous speech” – which is what Southern and Molyneux were accused of, although we never found out whether the accusation was justified – were “seldom difficult to justify”. I wonder if that’s a clue to the commission’s thinking, and that it believes banning the Canadians was the correct action.

Certainly it seems we shouldn’t expect the commission to champion what has been regarded for centuries as one of the defining rights of a liberal democracy. It now apparently falls to private citizens, in the form of the crowd-funded Free Speech Coalition, to defend freedom of expression.  

Dry legal arguments aside, the Auckland case was interesting for what it revealed about events behind the scenes.

Documents placed before the court show the speed with which the Auckland Left’s lobbying machine moved into gear once serial protester Valerie Morse learned of the proposed speaking engagement and contacted sympathetic Auckland councillor Cathy Casey.

They knew exactly which buttons to push. Within less than 24 hours, RFA had reneged on a signed contract with the event promoters and mayor Phil Goff had got in on the act and announced on Twitter that the Canadians would be barred from all council-owned venues.

Goff placed himself at the centre of events, telling Radio New Zealand that he wasn’t going to “aid and abet racist nonsense”. He apparently wanted to present himself as the man who saved New Zealand from a pair of racist haters, when in fact the cancellation may have been the action of a risk-averse RFA bureaucracy – albeit one emboldened by the knowledge that the mayor didn’t want the event to go ahead.

One telling email exchange revealed close co-ordination between the mayor’s office and RFA, with an obviously impatient functionary in Goff’s office telling RFA at one point: “The mayor is getting itchy twitter fingers”. Hmmm.

The views of Southern and Molyneux, whom Morse hysterically described as fascists, are almost irrelevant here. Their opinions may be offensive to some, but the main purpose of the court action is to uphold the right of peaceful assembly and challenge the right of bureaucrats and politicians to act as censors.

In any case, free speech includes the right to give offence – and unless the Canadians intended to urge their audience to commit unlawful acts, and there’s no evidence that they did, they were entitled to speak.

More to the point, New Zealanders were entitled to hear them and form their own opinions as to whether the Canadians were poisonous.

Disclosure: I have donated to the Free Speech Coalition. 


MarkJ said...

It bothers me that fascism is defined as a right wing movement. If you look at a definition "characterized by dictatorial power, forcible suppression of opposition, and strong regimentation of society and of the economy" - it could apply to both extreme left and right leaning dogmas. We should feel free to discuss our ideas without being labelled as fascists by either ideological camp. If you are preaching violence against others however, I believe you should be held to account.

Hilary Taylor said...

I am a donor too. These two events were disgraceful instances of censorship and demanded to be challenged. It's the modern mania for group-think and a feeble grasp on what it means to be a free country on display, overlaid with political correctness. Goff et al should hang their heads.

Trev1 said...

The Human Rights Commission obviously interpret their role as extinguishing basic human rights like free speech. Not surprising as we now have a recent would-be office-holder of the Marxist anti-Semitic UK Labour Party running the show. How did that happen? I too am a donor to the Coalition and strongly support its work. The real fight is yet to come, when Little unveils his free speech crack-down after the Royal Commission into the Christchurch mosque shootings produces its report later this year.

Scott said...

Totally agree with the above. It seems that free speech is no longer a value to the young progressive activist? I remember when Paddy Gower interviewed Stefan Molineux and Lauren Southern on TV his only aim appeared to be to refute their claims and their ideas. What he should have done as a journalist is to try and find out what their ideas were?

But it appears that the powers that be have decided that New Zealanders cannot think for themselves and it would be dangerous to present ideas to which the media elite do not agree. Whatever happened to free speech?

I was very disappointed when Don Brash was banned by Massey University. Again a case of political correctness overriding the liberal value of free speech.

We need to decide again to affirm free speech and allow competing ideas. Right now the leftist progressive narrative is just about all we see on TV and all we read in the newspaper. For myself I find it tiresome. Many of these ideas are bad ideas and they desperately need challenging!

Irene said...

I am grateful for the work of the Free Speech Coalition and I too made a donation. I abhor the prospect of New Zealand ending up with laws such as those now in operation in the UK. In my opinion freedom of speech underpins democracy and true justice supports freedom of speech.