Wednesday, November 9, 2022

Lauren Southern, Stefan Molyneux and the Streisand Effect

This is a talk I gave last night to the Masterton South Rotary Club.

It started with two Canadians named Lauren Southern and Stefan Molyneux, who were on a speaking tour of Australia and tacked on a visit to Auckland. Hardly anyone had heard of them, still less knew what their politics were. But when Auckland mayor Phil Goff barred them from speaking at a council-owned venue in 2018, he touched a sensitive nerve.

The banning order turned out to be a classic demonstration of the so-called Streisand Effect, whereby attempts to suppress or hide something paradoxically result in it being brought to wider public attention.

The term comes from Barbra Streisand’s efforts to prevent publication of a photograph showing her clifftop mansion in Malibu, California. The photo was taken in 2003 to show the effects of coastal erosion and was initially seen by only a handful of people. But then Streisand took legal action to remove it from the public record, and in the following months the picture was downloaded 420,000 times. I believe the technical term for this is shooting yourself in the foot.

In the case of Southern and Molyneux, a controversy erupted over freedom of speech which, four years later, is still being played out in the courts. Although they were virtual unknowns, their banning led directly to the creation of a national movement to protect free speech – something no one previously thought necessary in a country with a long history as one of the world’s most liberal democracies.

Most New Zealanders believed their right to free speech was unassailable, but what happened to Southern and Molyneux showed that this was no longer the case. Cancel culture – the phenomenon whereby the enemies of free speech try to shut down any opinion they don’t like – had arrived.

It wasn’t an isolated occurrence, because it followed several years during which free speech had come under increasing attack – in social media, to a lesser extent in mainstream media and even in universities. But the Southern and Molyneux incident turned out to be a tipping point.

Word had gone out on social media that the Canadians were dangerous activists from the far-Right. Valerie Morse, herself a career activist but from the opposite end of the political spectrum, called for them to be barred from entering New Zealand. She said Southern and Molyneux intended to stir up racist violence, a provocative claim for which there was no evidence.

Radio New Zealand reported that the two Canadians had “far-Right, alternative views on feminism, gender, Islam and immigration”, though we were never told what these views were so were unable to judge for ourselves whether they were dangerous.

Actually, that’s not entirely true. Lauren Southern had been reported as saying there were only two genders, male and female. This is a view probably shared by at least 99 percent of the population and one that would have been totally uncontroversial a few years ago, but is now apparently evidence of far-Right extremism.

Despite none of the claims about Southern and Molyneux being substantiated, Phil Goff saw it as an opportunity for some political grandstanding. “I have made my views on this very clear,” Goff declared on Twitter. “Southern and Molyneux will not be speaking at any council venues.” This was after the council had accepted a booking for the event at the Bruce Mason Centre, which it owns. The event was subsequently cancelled.

To this day we don’t know what Southern and Molyneux intended to say and so can’t judge whether they were a threat to public order and wellbeing. We were denied the right to hear them and form our own opinions. Goff apparently didn’t think the public was mature and wise enough to be exposed to their views. He took it upon himself to protect us.

The upshot of all this – and here’s the Streisand effect – was that the Canadians suddenly became a cause celebre. Goff’s unilateral action in misusing his power by banning Southern and Molyneux, as if Auckland was his personal fiefdom, was the catalyst for the formation of the Free Speech Coalition, which subsequently morphed into what is now the Free Speech Union. University lecturer David Cumin, one of the coalition’s founders, said that if the mayor of Auckland was allowed to ban people he didn’t like, all sorts of groups would be in deep trouble.

I should stress here that the coalition was formed not because its founders endorsed the opinions of Southern and Molyneux and thought they were worthy of wider promulgation. The people behind the coalition ranged right across the ideological spectrum.

Remember that at this stage, virtually no one knew what the Canadians’ opinions were, so were in no position to either endorse or oppose them. The coalition was concerned with one issue only: protecting the principle of free speech and the right of New Zealanders to be exposed to ideas and opinions regardless of whether people happened to agree with them.

This, after all, is the very heart of democracy. Democratic government depends on the contest of ideas, and the contest of ideas in turn depends on people being able to engage openly in free expression and debate. Free speech is where democracy starts. I would argue that it’s even more fundamental than the right to vote, because people’s ability to cast an informed vote depends on them first being able to participate in free and open debate about political issues and ideas.

Subsequent to Goff’s intervention in the issue, Auckland Council, possibly realising the mayor had overstepped his authority, shifted its ground by arguing that there were health and safety reasons for banning the Canadians. This was because protesters, including the aforementioned Valerie Morse, had threatened to blockade any meeting where they spoke.

But that raised an important free speech issue too, because it meant that protesters could force the cancellation of speaking engagements simply by threatening disruption.

Alarmed by these developments, the Free Speech Coalition began legal proceedings, funded by money raised through a public appeal, in the hope that the courts would declare Auckland Council to have acted unlawfully.

Lawyers for the coalition argued that the council’s action was inconsistent with Section 14 of the Bill of Rights Act, which states that “Everyone has the right to freedom of expression, including the freedom to seek, receive and impart information and opinions of any kind in any form.”

Note that the law doesn’t just refer to the freedom to speak; it gives equal weight to our right to seek and hear alternative views. There’s nothing in the Act that says opinions and ideas must be approved by people in power, such as the mayor of Auckland, before we can be safely allowed to hear them.

That court action has advanced all the way to the Supreme Court and is still in progress. Essentially New Zealand’s highest court is being asked to rule on a specific point – namely, whether Auckland Council was wrong to bow to threats of disruption and therefore restrict the rights of people who wanted to hear the Canadians speak.

Southern and Molyneux weren’t the only speakers to be cancelled on health and safety grounds. The urgency of the issue was reinforced when the vice-chancellor of Massey University barred Don Brash from speaking at an event on campus, again on the spurious pretext that people might be harmed if they attended.

It later emerged that the supposed “threat” came from a single disaffected student who said he never intended to do anything more violent than wave a sign. The real reason for the cancellation, as revealed by an information release under the Official Information Act, was that the vice-chancellor regarded Brash as a racist because of his views on the Treaty of Waitangi.

The vice-chancellor’s banning of a notable New Zealander didn’t go down well. Some people might have felt unsure about Southern and Molyneux, given that they were an unknown quantity, but Brash is a high-profile New Zealander whose opinions are very well known and who represented no threat to anyone. I wrote in the Australian edition of the Spectator that the Massey vice-chancellor, who comes from Queensland, had made herself the least popular Australian on this side of the Ditch since Greg Chappell instructed his brother to bowl underarm in 1981. Even the leader of the Massey students’ association, himself a Maori, said students had no confidence in her.

The Massey furore was another signal that free speech, which New Zealanders have historically taken for granted, was under attack by people in positions of authority. It was, to use a cliché, a wake-up call. There have been many more such episodes since then, some of which I’ll refer to later.

Events such as these formed the backdrop to an event I attended in Auckland last Saturday – the first annual conference of the New Zealand Free Speech Union, or FSU. As I mentioned earlier, the union evolved out of the Free Speech Coalition. It’s modelled on a similar organisation on Britain, where freedom of expression is also under sustained attack.

As in Britain, the Free Speech Union is officially registered as a trade union – an inspired idea which means it has the right to formally represent members whose free speech rights are threatened in the course of their work. The union has successfully invoked its statutory rights on numerous occasions, some of which I’ll mention shortly.

A vital point to note about the FSU is that while some of its critics dishonestly try to portray it as a right-wing front or an arm of the ACT Party, ideologically it’s very broad-based. Prominent figures in the union include Chris Trotter and Matt McCarten, both lifelong leftists. Members of the union’s council include a Maori university lecturer, a member of the Jewish community and a lesbian feminist.

Thinking people on the left side of politics have a very good reason to defend freedom of speech. They understand better than most that suppression of free speech has historically been used most often against the powerless and the advocates of change. Trade unionists, communists and campaigners for racial equality from Martin Luther King to Nelson Mandela all suffered under repressive controls on speech and recognised the importance of free speech as a weapon against oppression.

From the other end of the ideological spectrum, former ACT MP Stephen Franks and conservative blogger David Farrar have both been key players in the formation of the union and its precursor organisation. It follows that the FSU doesn’t take ideological positions on the left or the right and recognises that to be effective, consistent and credible, it must be politically non-partisan. Its only commitment is to freedom of speech.

The union is fighting across a very broad front because attacks on free speech are constant and come from multiple directions. But in its short existence, and despite extremely limited resources, the union has chalked up some notable victories. I’ll mention just a few.

■ It took legal action that forced city councils to back down after they refused to allow council venues to be held for meetings organised by a feminist group called Speak Up for Women, which opposed men being able to legally redefine themselves as female.

■ It took up the case of seven eminent academics who were threatened with expulsion from the Royal Society after they wrote a letter to the Listener challenging the scientific validity of Matauranga Maori, or traditional Maori knowledge. The professors were effectively subjected to a modern heresy trial and vilified in a letter from 2000 fellow academics who accused them of condoning something called scientific racism. The sheer weight and vehemence of the denunciation sent an unmistakeable message to the academic community: express dissent at your peril. But after being subjected to an embarrassing storm of international criticism and ridicule, the Royal Society backed down and concluded the professors had not breached its code of conduct. In fact I understand the society copped a furious backlash from many of its own members for betraying principles of academic freedom.

Sadly, the need for freedom of speech is nowhere more evident than in academia, where groupthink prevails and any deviation from approved ideological orthodoxy is likely to incur punishment in one form or another, whether it’s simply ostracism by colleagues or actual disciplinary action.

■ Speaking of academic freedom, the FSU also defended a Waikato University history lecturer’s right to describe people as cranks for believing, on religious authority, that the earth is flat and that humans lived alongside dinosaurs. The university threatened disciplinary action against him but backed down after the union pointed out its obligation to uphold academic freedom. Interestingly enough the Tertiary Education Union refused to support the lecturer while at the same time it was organising a conference on … academic freedom.

■ The FSU has supported several members who found themselves under attack in the workplace for opinions they had expressed in a personal capacity. In one case the union obtained an apology and retraction from a senior district council manager who harassed and intimidated a schoolteacher at his place of work for writing a submission in a private capacity in which the teacher expressed an opposing view to the manager on the issue of Maori wards. In another case a nurse was the subject of a complaint to the Nursing Council for expressing views on Facebook about transgender issues. You can probably guess what those views were.

■ In another recent case, a hospital doctor laid a complaint against a mortuary worker who used the pronoun “he” to refer to a deceased person who was biologically male but had identified as a woman. As I understand it, the employee avoided a disciplinary hearing only after the Free Speech Union intervened.

■ The union also met with the board of NZME, publishers of the New Zealand Herald, after the paper refused to publish an ad that consisted simply of the Oxford Dictionary’s incendiary definition of a woman as an adult human female. Just those words – nothing more. Newspapers, like universities, have traditionally been defenders of free speech but now seem frightened to upset transgender activists by publishing an ad that did nothing more than state a previously uncontroversial truth. You have to wonder, how did we get to this point, and where will it lead unless we resist?

These are cases that the FSU took up, but there have been plenty of others. There was the cancellation of a Harry Potter quiz at the Featherston Booktown Festival because someone objected to J K Rowling’s views on transgenderism and thought the quiz might distress the transgender community.

There was the British publishing firm that suddenly changed its mind about publishing a book by the world-famous Otago University professor the late Jim Flynn because the book raised “sensitive topics of race, religion and gender”. The book’s title? In Defence of Free Speech. So a book about the dangers of censoring free speech for fear of causing offence was itself cancelled for fear of causing offence. I think that’s called irony.

There was the bulldozer owner in Marlborough who painted the words “ALM Equal Rights for Kiwi Whites” on the blade of a bulldozer parked on his private property. This was at the height of the Black Lives Matter furore following the murder of George Floyd in the US. The letters ALM stood for All Lives Matter, but a neighbour complained that the words were racist and the bulldozer owner received a visit from the police who persuaded him to paint over them.

The concerning aspect here is the involvement of the police. There’s a very real prospect that with the proposed criminalisation of so-called “hate speech”, which I’ll come to shortly, it would fall to police officers to determine what opinions cross the legal threshold. We have ample evidence from Britain of the dangers that arise when the police are politicised and over-zealous officers take it upon themselves to decide what words are “safe”.

On a slightly lighter note, there was a complaint to the Advertising Standards Authority about a Street’s ice cream sign that said “Ice cream makes you happy”. The complainant said the sign promoted an unhealthy relationship with food. Now it seems absurd that the authority would take the complaint seriously, but sadly I have to tell you that it agreed with the complainant and the sign was removed. The enforcers of free speech are not noted for their sense of humour.

In addition to those individual cases I mentioned earlier, the Free Speech Union has been grappling with some much bigger issues, and none bigger than the proposed adoption of so-called hate speech laws.

This issue arose following the Christchurch mosque massacres and the subsequent Royal Commission of Inquiry. Recommendations for revised hate speech laws formed a small and relatively insignificant part of the commission’s recommendations. Deficiencies in existing laws were not identified as a cause of the massacres and there’s no evidence to suggest that tougher so-called hate speech laws would have prevented the atrocity. But there’s a saying in politics that every crisis presents an opportunity, and the government seized on the massacres as justification for the introduction of new laws restricting what we can say or write, ostensibly to protect vulnerable minorities. This is the era of identity politics, and Labour wants to look good to minority groups seeking protection from adverse comment. But history shows that hate speech laws can be weaponised to crush dissent – just look at Iran, which tried to have Salman Rushdie killed because he dared criticise Islam.

The problem with so-called hate speech laws is that they could impose unreasonable and undemocratic limitations on public discussion of legitimate political issues. Hurtful is different from hateful. Someone might feel insulted or offended by a statement but that doesn’t mean it’s intended to incite hatred or harm, and the courts have traditionally been liberal in recognising people’s right to express opinions that upset others – with good reason, because judges are reluctant to interfere with the fundamental right to free speech.

In any case, offences such as incitement to violence are already criminalised under existing laws and there’s no evidence to indicate those laws are inadequate. It’s an offence under the Human Rights Act to publish anything likely to excite hostility against, or bring into contempt, any group of persons in New Zealand on the ground of colour, race or national or ethnic origins. There’s a sound argument for adding religion to those categories, but you get into trouble once you move beyond that point by trying to define what is hateful, especially in a society where people are primed to take offence on the basis of sex, gender identity, race and religion. You then risk introducing what lawyers call a chilling effect which makes people reluctant to discuss issues for fear that they might be breaking the law. It becomes safer to say nothing at all.

As an aside, I was astonished to learn recently that according to the New Zealand Police website, a hate crime is an offence perceived by the victim to be motivated by hostility or prejudice towards a person’s race, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity, disability or age. So it’s down to victims to decide whether they’ve been the subject of a hate crime. This goes far beyond what the law says and shows that the police have already been well and truly politicised.

I mentioned this to my wife and she asked whether it meant that if I called her a silly old bag (not that I ever would, you understand) she could make a complaint to the police. I had to agree that it meant exactly that. This is how free speech rights are insidiously eroded, inch by inch. I'm not disrespectful toward the police, but I would have no confidence whatsoever in them exercising control over what I can say. That’s not their role.

The difficulties in defining hate speech were illustrated last year when neither the then minister of Justice, Kris Faafoi, nor the prime minister were able to explain how tougher hate speech laws would work. The Free Speech Union campaigned vigorously against a law change – 20,000 submissions to Parliament, 80 percent of them opposed – and the government quietly consigned the proposal to the too-hard basket.

Job done, the union thought. But now we have a new justice minister, Kiri Allen, and suddenly hate speech laws are back on the agenda. Not only that, but the prime minister recently delivered an address at the United Nations in which she talked about the need to combat threats from so-called disinformation – a word that seems to mean whatever the user wants it to mean.

All this points to the possibility of the government seeking to control the dissemination of information and opinion that it disapproves of, perhaps even relating to issues such as climate change, Covid vaccination, transgenderism and immigration. Hate speech and the right to dissent could become crucial issues in next year’s election, in which case it will be interesting to see whether the National Party takes a stand or leaves it to ACT to be the standard-bearer for free speech.

I want to leave you with a couple of quotations. The first is from the poet John Milton, who in 1644 wrote a famous defence of free speech called Areopagitica that included the stirring lines: “Let truth and falsehood grapple. Who ever knew truth put to the worse in a free and open encounter?” In other words, it’s only through free and open debate that society tests competing ideas and chooses which ones to adopt.

The other is from the left-wing American philosopher Noam Chomsky, who said that if we don’t believe in freedom of expression for people we despise, then we don’t believe in it at all. In other words we must defend the free speech rights of people we disagree with, because whoever tries to silence them might also one day try to silence us.

Thank you.

You can find the Free Speech Union website here: Free Speech Union (


R Singers said...

Nicely written speech. I hope the buffet afterwards was just as good.

Karl du Fresne said...

Standard Rotary fare: curry and rice followed by pav and fruit salad.

Robert Mann said...

> Greg Chappell instructed his brother to bowl underarm

The rules at the time, and the spirit of the noble game, allowed underarm bowling. To wrap on a leg-break to a right-handed batsman, I a R-handed bowler used sometimes to bowl underarm.
The Chapple bros' offence (which should have led New Zealand to refuse to play Australia until they were severely penalised) was not underarm bowling but ALONG THE GROUND bowling which is just about impossible to hit away, to score from.

Karl du Fresne said...

Thank you for clarifying that.

rouppe said...

It is absolutely essential for Labour and the Greens to be denied the government benches next year.

Absolutely essential for our democracy.

I personally believe National to be too wet, and to merely fiddle around the edges unless there is a coalition partner of substantial size to muscle some real change.

I intend to vote ACT in order to a) bring about a change of government and b) bring some heft to the coalition so that Luxon can't just waddle along only marginally different to Labour

hughvane said...

I couldn't help but liken your explanation of how someone may "perceive" or (in my words) 'feel' that they are under some sort of linguistic threat to that of US police who shoot someone because the 'feel' under threat. No requirement to provide evidence, just that they 'felt' endangered.

'Felt' in this context is emotion, and about as logically trustworthy as a stoat in a henhouse.

Anonymous said...

A sterling effort Karl. While I was going to say 'all that for a curry and rice', it is an extremely important plank to a functioning and free democracy and, so it's befitting that you took the time to canvass it fully and remind us of some of the challenges that have arisen. Thank you.

And, as for the Canadians, the Youtube clip of them with Newshub's Paddy Gower is rather telling. You may or may not agree with them and while undoubtedly provocative, I haven't heard that they incited violence everywhere they went. Of course, if Paddy had had a club at hand... :)

R Arlidge

Andy Espersen said...

hughvane > But there is usually a "requirement to provide evidence" - in the example you give re police. And this is a very logical requirement, is it not?

Namely clear evidence that the suspected criminal may be dangerous to police or others. That is not a feeling but a fact

Odysseus said...

What an excellent speech and useful account of the Free Speech Union's origins and achievements. You are right to remind us that free speech is of crucial importance to both those on the "Right" and the "Left", and indeed those in between. Identity politics is something else again - today's fascism?, and Ardern's totalitarian impulses which she ventilated in her shocking speech in the United Nations General Debate in September are deeply worrying. She is not fit to be Prime Minister of a liberal democracy.

I was heartened to find a very good column by Susannah Harper on "Relearning the Art of Debate" on the Platform's site this morning. Ms Harper makes the point we so often base our identity on the shifting sands of our belief networks and latch onto our mob as if it is indeed our identity. Which in fact often proves to be a mirage. Her recommendations on re-establishing the rules of debate, which appear to have been forgotten in academia and government, are very sensible:

Eamon Sloan said...

Anonymous/R Arlidge referred to Patrick Gower’s interview with Southern and Molyneux. Patrick Gower made a number of efforts to close them down in the interview. Patrick Gower could not take their points that while they were advocating for freedom of speech he was going totally in the opposite direction. The interview was a major embarrassment to Patrick Gower.

Karl mentioned the Streisand Effect. The interview produced for me the Gower Effect – the meaning of which was I could no longer have any confidence in Patrick Gower as a journalist/presenter. I haven’t viewed any of his work since.

Anonymous said...

Indeed Eamon, given Karl's reference I thought it a particularly pertinent example for those not familiar with them or the issue they encountered. Embarrassing to the point of cringeworthy.

R Arlidge