Wednesday, December 29, 2021

Some notable gains and a disappointing own-goal for the Free Speech Union

There are not a lot of warm fuzzy feelings to cherish from 2021. Most people will be happy to put the year behind them, for a whole lot of reasons not necessarily related to Covid-19. But there was one luminously bright spot. I refer to the establishment of the Free Speech Union last May.

The FSU evolved from the Free Speech Coalition, which in turn arose from outrage at the denial of a public speaking platform to the Canadian provocateurs Lauren Southern and Stefan Molyneux in 2018. Readers of this blog will recall that Phil Goff – whom I described at the time as the Gauleiter of Auckland – personally meddled in a process which resulted in council-owned Regional Facilities Auckland Ltd reneging on an earlier decision to make one of its venues available to the Canadians.

I should stress here that the coalition wasn’t formed because its founders endorsed the views of Southern and Molyneux, whom the media demonised as “far right” or “alt right” (whatever those terms might mean). The coalition was simply concerned with protecting the principle of free speech and the right of New Zealanders to be exposed to ideas not everyone agrees with.

Speaking for myself, I still have no idea what supposedly poisonous beliefs the Canadians were peddling, because we weren’t allowed to hear them. That was the whole point. They were “cancelled” on the pretext of threats to health and safety – the so-called thugs’ or hecklers’ veto, whereby officials can use the possibility of disruption as an excuse to de-platform controversial speakers (a fate also suffered later by Don Brash at Massey University).

The FSU initiated legal action challenging the Auckland cancellation but ran into an unsympathetic High Court decision, elements of which it then got overturned in the Court of Appeal, and is now going all the way to the Supreme Court. That the country’s highest court agreed to consider the issue is significant, indicating it should be seen as a test case on whether threats of violence should be allowed to over-ride free speech rights.

In the meantime the FSU, which is modelled on a similar organisation formed in Britain by Toby Young, associate editor of The Spectator, has busied itself with other worthy causes which it listed in an end-of-year summary put out by union spokesman Dane Giraud. These included:

■ Successful court action that forced Palmerston North City Council to reverse an earlier decision denying the feminist group Speak Up For Women, which opposed legislation allowing people to change the sex recorded on their birth certificates, the right to hold a public meeting in the city library. Other councils (Auckland, Dunedin and Wellington) got the message and also backtracked on similar speaking bans.

■ A petition signed by 40,000 people opposing the government’s plan to introduce “hate speech” laws that are so ill-defined and poorly thought out that neither the prime minister nor the Minister of Justice could explain how they would work.

■ Action to uphold the academic freedom of a Waikato University lecturer who faced a disciplinary hearing because his views about religion upset a student. The lecturer’s own union hung him out to dry but university officials did a handbrake turn after the FSU’s lawyers reminded them of their obligation to respect academic freedom under the Education Act.

■ In the most celebrated free speech case of the year, the FSU took up the cause of the seven eminent academics who were blackballed and pilloried by 2000 censorious (for which read bigoted) colleagues – again, with no support from union representatives or university authorities – after they wrote a letter to The Listener challenging the idea that traditional Maori knowledge (matauranga Maori) should be equated with science. The controversy attracted international attention and brought down a richly deserved hail of ridicule on the Royal Society of New Zealand when it announced its attention to subject two of the Listener Seven to the 21st century equivalent of a heresy trial.

■ Action was also taken in support of local government councillors, including former MP Michael Laws, who contravened stifling “codes of conduct” that restrict what the elected representatives of the people can say about council policies or council performance - in other words, censorship of the elected by the unelected. Dane Giraud comments: “There is a worrying trend of Codes of Conduct within organisations being weaponised to undermine free speech. This is true across numerous sectors, not just local government, where vague provisions can be twisted to suit just about any purpose."

All this serves to confirm the importance of the FSU in protecting freedom of expression at a time when it’s under attack on a scale unprecedented in the memory of most New Zealanders. It shouldn’t be necessary, of course, since free speech is guaranteed under the Bill of Rights Act. But most of the institutions that we once counted on to uphold free speech – including the news media, academia and the government itself – have deserted the cause and even worse, become complicit in its erosion.

Against this backdrop, however, it’s disheartening to note that the FSU passed up an opportunity to speak out in support of blogger Cameron Slater when he reported that he was under surveillance by a police “scanning and targeting team” for holding “anti-government” views and “denigrating” Labour Party policies.

I continue to support the FSU, but in my opinion they got things badly wrong here. It was a serious and seemingly inexplicable lapse in an otherwise laudable first few months.

In a statement belatedly issued on Christmas Eve, presumably in response to the concerns of members sympathetic to Slater (who wrote a trenchant post attacking the FSU), the union justified its silence by explaining that it had considered the issue and decided it involved “civil liberties” rather than free speech. But free speech is a civil liberty – arguably the most important civil liberty of all, since it goes to the very heart of participatory democracy. Look up almost any definition of civil liberties and you’ll find it includes freedom of speech along with other rights such as freedom of religion, freedom of conscience and freedom of assembly. To treat it as something separate and discrete is to draw an artificial distinction.

The FSU went on to explain that Slater had not had his freedom of expression infringed in any practical way, which struck me as a narrow and rather legalistic assessment. It’s true, as the FSU says, that the police report on Slater didn’t stop him from writing columns or standing on a soapbox (metaphorically speaking). But active interference and outright coercion are not the only means of discouraging people from exercising their rights. The very knowledge that writing or publishing “anti-government” rhetoric might invite police attention would in itself serve as a deterrent to people less bold than Slater. The disclosure that police covertly monitor dissenters could have a potent chilling effect on public debate and is therefore something I believe the FSU should concern itself with.

Even more worrying was the suggestion from a senior sergeant that police should pay Slater a visit. This is how police states begin.

The FSU said the police had a legitimate role in monitoring sites where extremists congregated but conceded that they showed poor judgment in thinking the BFD, the site Slater is associated with, was one of those places. Here we get to the core of the argument. Slater might have invited police attention had he been inciting violence or insurrection, but he wasn’t. His putative offence was criticising the government – a legitimate, indeed necessary, function in any open democracy.  That’s why we should all be alarmed that he was under police scrutiny. Slater expresses himself very forcefully and certainly rubs people up the wrong way, but he’s not a political extremist.

On the other hand, we should be reassured that Slater's Official Information Act request flushed out the police zealots and that senior officers stepped in before things went too far. But none of this was a reason for the FSU to sit on its hands. The union could have acknowledged those redeeming factors while still pointing out that the OIA disclosures pointed to an unhealthy and potentially dangerous mentality within sections of the police. In fact to look at the issue from a different angle, what harm would have been done by issuing a statement cautioning against abuse of police powers? None that I can see. But it would have signalled that the union was vigilant in upholding free speech across the board, and perhaps more importantly it would have avoided the inevitable suspicion that the union decided to stay silent because of the identity of the individual concerned.

Slater, after all, has a complicated history and has made lots of enemies. His many critics would say he doesn’t make it easy to like him. We can only hope that wasn’t the reason the FSU held back from defending him. As Noam Chomsky (a lefty) observed, if we don’t believe in freedom of speech for people we dislike [although Chomsky used a much stronger word], we don’t believe in it at all. Or as someone close to me put it, you can’t pick and choose who you’re going to support when it comes to a scrap over free speech.

As it was, the FSU did itself no credit by eventually making a statement – to its members, not the public at large – on a day when people had other things on their minds. That’s what governments do when they want to hide something.

I respect the leaders of the union and I admire them for all they have achieved in a short time, but they didn’t so much drop the ball on this occasion as refuse to pick it up. Sadly, I suspect their credibility will have been damaged as a result.

FOOTNOTE: At the risk of repeating myself, I don’t know Cameron Slater, although the BFD has published pieces by me. I should also acknowledge that the Free Speech Union republished my original blog post on the police surveillance issue, noting that “reasonable minds can differ on these issues”.

 

 

23 comments:

Doug Longmire said...

Thank You Karl - an excellent article.
As background, I recall the banning of Lauren Southern very clearly.
Part of the reason for this is that I had watched many of her YouTube doco's for some time beforehand and I was looking forward to hearing her in GodZone.
A major lie that was flung at her here, to ban her, was that she was "racist".
I can state very emphatically that, having watched most of her previous doco's I have NEVER heard her issues any opinion, or statement, or publication that was "racist".

She was a probing journalist and yes - she did criticise certain extreme religious and cultural movements, mainly on the basis that they were evidence based, a threat to peace.
But never a racist criticism.

Terry M said...

Good call Karl. I am a supporter of FSU but I'm afraid they shat in their own nest this time.

R Singers said...

By taking the stand they have the FSU show they are serious about their core business, and not just a knee jerk anti-woke organisation. This will appeal to people who are currently on the fence about joining but are worried about the state of discourse in New Zealand.

Yes it's worrying that someone who has made it to senior sergeant is so misinformed about what his role should be, but you mischaracterise the Police's position. The unnamed sergeant was not allowed by his superiors to carry on with his foolish actions.

What do you want the FSU to do anyway, complain that the Police management structure did the right thing?

Tony said...

You should check out Russell Brands daily clips he posts on YouTube, if you don't already. Quite enjoys exposing tyranny. No idea how well connected you are, if there's a 6 degrees of separation link somewhere, but a critique from outside the sphere of local journos could be interesting. Kinda tired of smug young female journos being big bad fish in a small pond. Something outlining the situation as you see it - all in a handful of paragraphs. May wake a few people up.

Karl du Fresne said...

R Singers,
As I said in my post, the FSU could have issued a statement complimenting the police on making the right call (eventually) but pointing out the dangers of of police power being abused by over-zealous officers with dangerously muddled ideas about their function. As it is, I think the union has created the impression, at least in some people's eyes, that it remained silent because it didn't approve of Slater. Perhaps it was worried about being seen as aligned with the far Right, which is how the media misleadingly characterise Slater.

Odysseus said...

The fact that the Police have set up a Scanning and Targeting(!) Unit which monitors "anti-government sentiment" is deeply disturbing. That a member of the Unit could suggest paying Slater a visit to intimidate him is even worse - is this normal practice? The FSU, to which I am a regular donor, should have issued a statement of concern about these revelations, not least for their potential "chilling effect" on free speech.

But what about the Opposition? Why did they not put the Minister of Police on the spot? They have a duty to do so. Once again they are missing in action.

Overall and "on balance" I have to say I am very pleased with the work done by the FSU over 2021. They undertake a vital function in what remains of our democracy virtually on their own. I will keep up and likely increase my contributions because 2022 is going to be even more challenging when the government introduces its appalling hate speech legislation.

Birdman said...

I have to agree with your analysis of this matter Karl and as a member and donor to the FSU I have voiced my opposition and asked them to revisit their position.

If they have dropped the ball because of making a wrong decision re the person and not the issue that would be concerning. That it's Slater is irrelevant, just as much as Southern and Molyneux were irrelevant as individuals to that situation. You don’t have to like any of them to stand up for them.

The other point we all recognise is that this matter involves the NZ Police, so is particularly concerning when it is clear that service has become politicised to the level of the Commissioner – thanks initially to Bush, who you wrote about in less than glowing terms a number of times and I bet he never sent you a Xmas card.

While it's not on point for this post, I meant to congratulate you for cancelling the DimPost before they cancelled you. The quiz is already not what it used to be. You never really rectified the complaint from the Karori reader that there were too few accounting questions but we most all got over that.

Happy New Year to you, all your avid readers and the thoughtful commenters.

R Singers said...

I didn't get the impression from FSU's statement that they didn't approve of Slater. I got the impression that they are serious and not aligned with either the left or the right. I also formed the impression they has thought seriously about the issue.

Karl du Fresne said...

Birdman,

A woman once complained to me that my quiz contained no questions about dentistry (she worked as a dental assistant). You can't please everyone.

Incidentally, the quiz will be reborn under a new name and in a new place. Expect a formal announcement in due course.

rouppe said...

While saying "pay Slater a visit" is taking things too far, I don't see why monitoring public utterings is a problem.

Police will also be monitoring various peoples Facebook posts, twitter accounts and in fact commenters on sites like the bfd, since Slater attracts some at a fairly angry point on the spectrum.

Even people here might have done something similar, looking up on social media sites people they have heard of or might like to know.

I'm critical of the government on Stuff and some blogs. Am I being "looked at"? Don't know. Don't care. Good luck with trying to turn it into something criminal.

Eamon Sloan said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Karl du Fresne said...

Hughvane,
Thanks for pointing out that careless error. It's been corrected.

Karl du Fresne said...

Rouppe,
It's not the monitoring, per se, that worries me so much as the assumption that Slater needs to be watched because he's "anti-govt" and "denigrates Labour policies". Someone needs to explain to these overzealous (young?) cops that people are allowed to do these things in a democracy.

Ricardo said...

Karl

In my humble estimation you are a little too fevered on this issue.

First, the FSU's statement was clear and well founded. Slater's free speech rights were not attacked. They clearly weighed your "thin end of the civil rights wedge" argument against their strategic objective to remain a broad credible church with a pristine focus on free speech. On balance their judgment is one that can be reasonably be made.

Now if the Police had visited Slater and cautioned him then that would be another matter. An initial poor judgment would have survived higher ranking scrutiny and been transformed into oppressive conduct. Fortunately this did not occur.

Secondly, the Police were quite entitled to surveil Slater among what I am sure is a large list. According to news reports , this is an individual prepared to impugn and defame health professionals for 30 pieces of silver, possibly at the behest of others with cynical motivations. That lack of character speaks of a rigid ideological bent which law enforcement is wise to keep an eye on, not least for the life forms it might induce to come out in the sunlight.

Thirdly, this matter has highlighted how febrile commentary can subtly change and intensify when like minded people bat it back and forth approvingly without serious scrutiny; viz the words "anti-government" appearing once in rough police notes at a junior level, among I am sure a plethora of other adjectives describing persons surveilled, has been transformed in this comments section into a vast insidious listening stasi which acts on Ardern's behalf. Really?

Doug Longmire said...

I am a subscriber to FSU, and when I heard that they had not supported Cam Slater I e-mailed them asking why.
When I read their "explanation" I could (sort of) understand their point that Slater was not being speech suppressed. However, like you I got the impression that they were making excuses for a job that they should have done. However given the excellent work they have done this year, I do not think that their reputation is damaged all that much.
We shall see.

Om a similar topic, I see from last night's Pravda News that the TV1 Thought Police have continued their crusade to put pressure on book/magazine retailers to remove from sale books and mags that are not judges politically correct.

It started with Tross being targeted and accused of all sorts of extreme, racist publications. The hit job was carried out by a reporter of obvious bias. The accusations were simply untrue.
I have read several of the books and found them to be factually accurate, and, sorry TV1, NON-racist !
However I have since heard that the publicity from the attack has resulted in Tross being inundated with requests from the public wanting to buy or read their various publications.

Perhaps after last night's attempted suppression, the magazine "Uncensored" may benefit from the Pravda publicity !!

Phil said...

It bothers me that much of the media is completely ignoring the Government's separatist agenda and is essentially paid to keep quiet. We have some blog sites that speak out against the Government and are put under police surveillance. This is very disturbing.

Eamon Sloan said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Simonda said...

"Denigrates Labour policies". This is the bit that I find concerning.

Karl du Fresne said...

Ricardo,

You may think it unexceptionable that police monitor people for doing what they’re entitled to do in a democracy. I don’t. But these are just competing opinions and I leave it to readers to decide whose carries more weight.

What does concern me is that you snipe at me from behind the cover of a pseudonym, sometimes (as on this occasion) with a hint of a sneer.

What I write is open to challenge and God forbid that I should be so precious as to suppress valid criticism. However if you’re going to continue enjoying the hospitality of this blog, the point will come when I’ll insist on knowing who I’m engaging with.

Doug Longmire said...

I agree with you 100% Karl, and I support your stated stance.
Personally, I have never understood the motive or thought process (if there is one) that promotes a blogger/commenter to hide behind a pseudonym and not use their real name.

What are they afraid of? Why hide ?

David said...


... the Police were quite entitled to surveil Slater among what I am sure is a large list. According to news reports , this is an individual prepared to impugn and defame health professionals for 30 pieces of silver, possibly at the behest of others with cynical motivations. That lack of character speaks of a rigid ideological bent which law enforcement is wise to keep an eye on, not least for the life forms it might induce to come out in the sunlight.

Slater produces some of the most repulsive material I have encountered in a mainstream NZ outlet (for mainstream is what his outpourings are). He regularly mounts what I regard as disgraceful attacks on decent people, some of whom are people I admire. I judge him by his public utterances. He appears to me from his vile rants to be a thoroughly nasty man, though of course his public persona may differ from the private Slater. I have no idea if it does.

That said, Slater has the untrammeled right to free expression in our democracy. While there are many people who would have him silenced (including many of the journalists who fed off his nasty blog posts before he was exposed as a paid assassin of character), he breaks no law of this land. Indeed, the law of the land expressly allows his freedom of nasty expression. That is why I understand the position of the FSU on him. Slater has his own platform. He cannot, legally, be cancelled.

What I found extremely concerning was the assumption by some police officers that Slater should be kept under surveillance for holding anti-government views. That really is Stasi-like stuff. His "rigid ideological bent" is no business of the police. Better IMO to have a "rigid ideological bent" of any kind than to stand for nothing or believe in nothing. I am pleased that police higher up the chain saw the dangers of such an attitude; and that the police let Slater have those revelatory emails when he asked for them under the OIA. Releasing such damning material would have needed the approval of the Commissioner. I have a lot of admiration for Andrew Coster. He is my kind of police commissioner.

But the price of our freedoms is eternal vigilance and we need to keep the police under surveillance to ensure they are not keeping we law-abiding citizens under surveillance for nothing more than what we think and believe and say. When Star Chamber is in session, nobody is safe.

Hiko said...

I am not a particular fan of Cameron Slater The language he uses sometimes is unnecesary I feel and just polarises people to take a stance against him personally rather than take on board his message.
That said we need people who will speak out at times and not cower and hide what is troubling them in case it is not flavour of the month There is far too much of that around
Enjoy your Blog and thoughts Karl all power to you

Hilary Taylor said...

I was waiting for your 'take' Karl, thank you. My big 'picture' view, after reading Slater's piece, was that he was pissed off because the FSU was being careful....in his mind they were covering their arse, letting him down. I am inclined to take the side of the FSU but I understand his chagrin. (I actually emailed the FSU in support but it bounced back over the season.) I read the BFD after engaging over the bogus Metiria Turei & while it was still WOBF.
As you & others have said, his activities are unfettered, while clearly the surveillance state is operating....he, & we, know more about exactly how that works thanks to the OIA. Good. Post-massacre were we not told lustily that such monitoring would be ramped up..was Matt Nippert not engaged in a University-run effort to surveil & identify bad actors, such as Tarrant, before they wreak havoc? Hysteria over the 'far-right' yada yada...Police & the Security agency? I would be keen to read more about such activity but there have been plenty of pointers in the media to the state 'minding shop' where agitators & critics dwell, not that we have to like it. SLater is entirely free, and should be, to continue his blog. Bradbury can be equally abrasive on the left.
I agree it would not have hurt for the FSU to make remarks given their raison d'etre. I'm also not too bothered they haven't in this case, other than what we've received to date. A fence-sitter, me, hmmm...