Thursday, March 9, 2023

On free speech and where not to find it

The Free Speech Union has been touring the country with its documentary ‘Last Words’, which records last year’s visit to NZ by Danish free speech campaigner Jacob Mchangama. Local speakers have talked at these screenings and I was invited to address the ones in Masterton and Pahiatua. The Masterton event (pictured above) was well attended and the Pahiatua turnout was pretty good too, considering the size of the town. The following are my speech notes.

I would like to start with a few words about so-called hate speech:

Hate is a very powerful word. If you hate someone you want to do them harm and possibly even kill them. I don’t think New Zealand is a hateful society. The perpetrator of the Christchurch atrocities, which have been cited as justification for hate speech laws, was an Australian. Speaking for myself, I can truthfully say I don’t hate anyone. Well, maybe Vladimir Putin when he murders defenceless civilians, but I can’t think of anyone else.

What is characterised as hate speech is more often simply speech that upsets or offends someone. But there’s no human right not to be upset, or to be protected from having your values and beliefs questioned and criticised. So I think it would be helpful to get rid of that loaded term “hate speech” because it’s a misnomer.

Moreover I think the pressure for so-called hate speech laws was based on a false premise. The supposition is that tougher hate speech laws would have prevented the Christchurch atrocities, but there’s no evidence to show that. You heard the sociologist Mike Grimshaw say in the documentary that in fact it would have gratified the perpetrator of those atrocities if hate speech laws were enacted, because it would legitimise his warped, paranoid world view. It would have confirmed his view of himself as someone the establishment wanted to silence – a martyr.

My second point is that free speech is not a standard left-versus-right issue. You heard Jacob Mchangama make that point in the documentary.

You would also have heard Kim Hill implying, when she interviewed Jacob on RNZ, that the free speech movement was a right-wing thing, simply because he had addressed the Ayn Rand Institute. But Jacob is happy to talk to groups from any point on the political spectrum, as he said in the documentary.

Kim Hill also said, quite untruthfully, that the opponents of hate speech laws in New Zealand were all from the right. Wrong: some of the most vocal proponents of free speech are old-school lefties such as Chris Trotter, Martyn Bradbury, Don Franks and Matt McCarten. The political scientist Bryce Edwards is also a free speech champion, and I don’t think anyone would mistake Bryce for a right winger.

The traditional Left believe in free speech because they know it has been a vital tool in fighting for the causes they believe in, such as civil rights in the United States. Jacob makes that point in his book.

Free speech is important to the traditional Left because they know better than anyone what it means to suffer under authoritarian regimes that put you in jail for saying what you think.

You’ll note that I refer to the “traditional” Left. That’s because the opposition to free speech mainly comes from what you might call the new woke Left. I know a lot of people hate that term “woke”, but until someone comes up with a better word, it will have to do.

As a general rule the woke Left are younger and have come through the university system. They have a very limited understanding of history and apparently think they have a human right not to be exposed to opinions they dislike or which challenge their world view. Unfortunately they seem to be encouraged in this belief by their university lecturers.

Universities used to be regarded as bulwarks of free thought and freedom of expression. That’s no longer the case. Universities throughout the western world – even august institutions such as Oxford and Harvard – frequently bring down the shutters on speakers who are deemed provocative or even merely controversial.

There’s no sadder example than the Berkeley campus of the University of California, which was the birthplace of the radical free speech movement in the 1960s but in recent years has earned a reputation as the home of cancel culture, where speakers who challenge ideological orthodoxy are branded as unsafe and de-platformed.

I experienced a very mild form of this phenomenon myself when I spoke at a Free Speech Union event at Victoria University last year. Posters advertising the meeting around the campus were repeatedly torn down and replaced with ones saying “Stop Hate Speech” and labelling the Free Speech Union as racist, homophobic, transphobic hypocrites.

Whoever took down those posters had no idea what I was going to say. They just decided that whatever it was, it was bound to be “unsafe” (and there’s another loaded word that should have no place in rational discourse).

There was a subsequent report of my speech in the Victoria University student newspaper Salient. This report was prefaced with what’s known as a trigger warning, which read: “This article examines some of the racist, transphobic, sexist and otherwise harmful content discussed at the event in question. Please exercise caution when reading.”

As far as I know, my speech is still available on the Free Speech Union website. Anyone who’s interested can decide for themselves whether it was harmful. I’m not aware of anyone who needed medical treatment after hearing it.

I noted in a post on my blog that Salient in its heyday was a lively student paper that thrived on controversy and debate. Many of the people associated with it went on to occupy important positions in public life, including one who became a Labour prime minister. They must shake their heads in despair at the modern version of the paper.

But that’s what universities have become: institutions where groupthink, ideological conformity and intolerance of dissent rule. That was never more evident than when seven eminent professors wrote a letter to the Listener in 2021 in defence of the traditional definition of science and were subjected to a vicious gang-up, led by the Royal Society and supported by the University of Auckland and the Tertiary Education Union.

One Victoria University professor posted a sneering tweet calling the seven respected academics “shuffling zombies” and wondered if someone had put something in their water. There’s a mature, open mind for you.

The furore attracted the attention of leading international scientists and was rightly characterised by the likes of Richard Dawkins as an attack on the professors’ academic freedom. In the end the Royal Society and the university were forced to pull their heads in. I think they were embarrassed by the international outcry. But in the meantime, of course, the Listener Seven had been publicly pilloried and portrayed as pariahs.

It used to be the case that three institutions could be relied on to uphold free speech: universities, the courts and the media. I’ve already mentioned the first of those, so what of the other two?

The courts have a mixed record. My impression is that historically they have taken a liberal approach, but a High Court judge decided it was okay for Auckland Council to bar two Canadians, Lauren Southern and Stefan Molyneux, from speaking at a council-owned venue. This was after protesters threatened to picket the event.

The unfortunate consequence of the judge’s decision was that it conveyed the message that all anyone had to do to get a speaker cancelled was to threaten disruption.

The Free Speech Union took up the case, managed to win a partial reversal in the Court of Appeal and took it to the Supreme Court, which dismissed the FSU’s case on what I believe were dry, technical legal points rather than approaching it from a broader human rights perspective.

But there have been legal victories too. A city council that tried to ban anti-transgender feminists from holding a public meeting in the local library was forced to back down, and other councils duly took note. So that’s something.

That brings me to the media, and I’m afraid that there the picture is not encouraging.

Print, broadcast and online media tend to take a uniform, homogenous ideological and political line and publish just enough dissenting opinion to enable them to claim they’re open to opposing views.

Letters to the editor, fortunately, remain an important platform for alternative points of view. But I’ve spent a long time in journalism and I can say with certainty that the media are not as committed to diversity of opinion as they used to be.

I’ll give you just one small example: in all the media furore that raged for days over Roe versus Wade last year, it was virtually impossible to hear an anti-abortion voice. It was as if that side of the debate simply didn’t exist.

It was also depressing to hear Jonathan [Jonathan Ayling, of the FSU] say in the documentary that he invited journalists and researchers to meet Jacob Mchangama, but got no uptake. Journalists – and for that matter, broadcasters such as Kim Hill – should be in the front line of the battle for free speech because they depend on it every day. They couldn’t function without it.

I’ll also note that when the Free Speech Union held its inaugural annual conference last year, not one journalist from the mainstream media covered it.

I’d like to go slightly off-topic here and comment briefly on the Public Interest Journalism Fund, or the Pravda Project as I call it, which has made $55 million of taxpayers’ money available to media outlets provided they fulfil certain conditions relating to the Treaty.

I won’t go so far as to say the media have been bought, although some people put it that way. However I certainly think the media have compromised their independence and created a damaging public perception that they’re beholden to the government. They should hardly be surprised if people question their openness to a wide range of opinions.

I can offer a small personal insight into some individual journalists’ commitment to free speech.

I earlier mentioned the political scientist Bryce Edwards. Bryce compiles a daily summary of political news and comment that he makes available online to anyone who’s interested. He provides links to the source material, which ranges across a very broad spectrum of political comment encompassing left as well as right, although more of the former because that’s the nature of most commentary in the mainstream media. Occasionally Bryce includes links to my own blog posts.

I learned recently that a senior journalist in the parliamentary press gallery had emailed Bryce asking, in a wheedling tone, whether he had given any thought to excluding my blog posts. In other words this journalist wanted me, a fellow journalist of 55 years’ standing, cancelled.

He apparently took this step because he was offended by critical comments I had made about some of his colleagues in the press gallery. Bryce, to his credit, ignored the suggestion.

Perhaps more to the point, this journalist, who has never met me, described me as a racist, a sexist and a misogynist. Not only are these lazy, simplistic stereotypes that shouldn’t belong in any mature journalist’s vocabulary, but they are defamatory and I believe untrue. I would happily challenge my accuser to substantiate them.

In an unrelated event, I was recently invited to participate in an Australian Broadcasting Corporation radio discussion analysing Jacinda Ardern’s prime ministership, Ms Ardern having just stood down.

A senior and highly influential New Zealand journalist was also approached to take part but on learning I was a panellist, declined. The explanation she gave was that I was a racist, a sexist and a misogynist – those very same words again – and she didn’t want to “legitimise” me by appearing on the same show.

Again, this person has never met me and had no idea what I was likely to say on the show. As it happens, I deplore the vicious personal attacks made on Jacinda Ardern and believe I was fair in my assessment of her performance as PM.

If this person disapproved of my views, then surely the thing to do was challenge them. But rather than engage in a rational, civilised discussion on air, she recoiled as if the mere act of appearing with me would expose her to the risk of biological contamination.

Is that the response of a mature, rational adult, open to debate? I think it was cowardly and childish.

In a Free Speech Union newsletter sent out only this week, Jonathan [Ayling] points out that the leader of the so-called Disinformation Project, Kate Hannah, has repeatedly declined invitations to meet with him, saying it would be – get this – “unsafe”. That word again.

Now Jonathan doesn’t exactly strike me as a threatening individual, but this is a typical reaction. Rather than engaging in a mature, intelligent exchange of views, the opponents of free speech squeeze their eyes shut, block their ears and run shrieking from the room.

Incidentally, I have yet to see any explanation of where the Disinformation Project gets its money. I entered the word “funding” in the search box on its website and nothing came up. Interesting.

But getting back to those two journalists: I suspect neither of my accusers had taken the trouble to actually read a cross-section of my work as a journalist, columnist and blogger. If they had, I don’t believe they could possibly substantiate their attacks on me. I’m happy to be judged on my record.

But here’s the point: if two senior and influential mainstream journalists have such resolutely closed minds, what hope is there of the media facilitating open and balanced debate?

The really worrying thing is that the latter of the two was in a position to exercise editorial control at the highest level. I could no longer have any confidence in the editorial integrity of any publication this individual was involved with.

Before I finish, three bullet points:

■ First: We shouldn’t count on the National Party to champion free speech. That’s obvious from the way Christopher Luxon and Nicola Willis pounced on Maureen Pugh a couple of weeks ago for having the courage and honesty to ask questions about the theory of human-induced climate change.

Neither can you rely on the Human Rights Commission to defend free speech. In fact, quite the reverse. The commission has actively campaigned for restrictions on what New Zealanders can say. It’s possibly the most ironically misnamed government agency in our history.

■ Second: There is a moral panic over misinformation, disinformation and conspiracy theories. My question is, who decides which information is permissible and which is not?

Misinformation and disinformation are terms that are too easily used to delegitimise dissent and confine public debate within “safe” channels.

In any case, in a free society you have the right to be wrong. The way to determine truth – insofar as that’s possible – is by allowing open debate, not by driving dissenting opinion underground.

As John Milton wrote in his poem Areopagitica, which you heard mentioned in the doco: “Let truth and falsehood grapple; who ever knew truth put to the worse in a free and open encounter?”

■ Third, and to finish on a slightly more optimistic note, I wonder whether the tide may be starting to turn.

Many book publishers now employ what are called sensitivity readers, who are paid to read authors’ manuscripts and intercept anything that might be construed as upsetting. That’s how precious we’ve become.

The best-selling British author Anthony Horowitz recently revealed that one of the characters in his latest novel was a Native American doctor who attacked someone with a scalpel. Horowitz had to delete that word “scalpel” for fear that some people might associate it with the Native American tradition of scalping. Although there’s no etymological connection between the two words, Horowitz was told to replace “scalpel” with “surgical instrument”. That’s how absurd things have got.

However (and here’s the optimistic bit), Puffin Books pushed the boat out too far last month when they tried to render Roald Dahl’s beloved children’s books politically correct by removing words such as “fat”, “ugly”, “mad” and “crazy”, and by making the Oompa Loompas gender-neutral.

Waddya know: there was an international backlash, and within days Puffin had announced that the texts would again be made available in the original form. In the battle for free speech, such small victories must be cherished. Thank you.

Footnote: Although I’m a member of the Free Speech Union, I don’t purport to speak for it. The views expressed here are my own.


Huskynut said...

Great speech.. well said Karl. And glad to know you're supporting the FSU.. their work is inportant

Phil said...

There should also be a category called No-Information which relates to global news stories that are barely mentioned by the NZ. In particular news stories about New Zealand. Examples are Russian influence on the 2017 NZ election or US Congress discussion on Chinese influence over the NZ Government or Jacinda Ardern's controversial speech to the UN or rigorous debate overseas on matters raised by Richard Dawkins.

Odysseus said...

What an excellent survey of the state of free speech! The groupthink so evident in our universities and the media is disturbing. I find the Disinformation Project and their ilk on the one hand comic and on the other potentially very sinister. Who indeed does fund them? If they receive any government money we have a right to know.

Like you I was appalled by Luxon's rounding on Maureen Pugh for asking an innocent question on behalf of her West Coast constituents. Does Luxon intend that party members are prohibited from holding divergent views on matters of scientific controversy?

We live in an age where mass delusions such as climate catastrophism are ramping up. They seem to have become even more feverish and intolerant since the authorities discovered how easy it was to terrify people into accepting a Police State at the drop of a hat under COVID.

As Thomas Jefferson said, "The price of freedom is eternal vigilance". The FSU is doing important work on our behalf and deserves support.

Max Ritchie said...

The pusillanimous journalists should be named. And re the Pugh matter, Luxon and Willis showed their true colours. I understand why - the slightest hint of not accepting the global warming hysteria and the world descends like a ton of bricks. But the way it was done was awful. There’s a place for questions - on everything - and Luxon could have handled it much better. There are a lot of people who think that shooting ourselves in the foot while importing dirty Indonesian coal, for example, is pretty dopey.

Birdman said...

Hell, so many aspects to comment on but first my thanks to you Karl for contributing so much to the FSU and the cause.
On the Maureen Pugh matter, my compliant to Luxon on his and Willis' appalling treatment of her was met with a staffer's lecture from someone who is seriously uninformed but well briefed on how to talk down to a complainant. It's fair to say my response wasn't all that complicit of the lecturer's gems. As a long time member and donor to the FSU, some of the lecturing was seriously insulting.
There is no obviously recovery of the MSM. IMHO, only a change of government that determines that to agree to engage with the MSM will require it be balanced may have some affect. Like him or loathe him, Hosking achieves more on a political level than the rest of the MSM combined it would seem - which clearly infuriates them.

Max Shierlaw said...

Karl what do you think about the Free Speech Union's defence of Drag Queens reading to young children in a public library? Did they need to get involved? Free speech is between adults.

Doug Longmire said...

An excellent article Karl !!
I can only totally agree with you and comments above by Odysseus and Max Ritchie. You have said it all.
Our once proud and free nation is certainly heading down a very bad, dangerous, third-world style government that would be expected from, say, Riwanda.
Three cheers for the FSU.

Karl du Fresne said...


I couldn't say I was comfortable with the FSU's support for drag queens indoctrinating kids, but sometimes support for free speech takes you to uncomfortable places.

For the record, Jonathan Ayling outlined the union's position here:

Gary Peters said...

"Speaking" to children is fine, parodying women is offensive in my mind and should not be an issue of free speech.

Would the free speech union have supported a "black face" performance to entertain kids?

If people want to pay for a "performace" where a woman's physicial features are grotesquely presented then that is their choice.

Hugh Jorgan said...

Shielding university students from alternative opinions that may make them feel 'unsafe' is actually creating a whole generation of graduates who are incapable of engaging in robust debate, which is why, for example, Kate Hannah won't engage with Jonathan Ayling.
On the subject of the Disinformation Project, I'm reasonably certain it is government funded. I'm also reasonably certain (and not a 'conspiracy theorist,' in case you're wondering) that the government has established a shadowy Ministry of Truth-type unit whose sole remit is to trawl social media and blog sites 'correcting' viewpoints that are inconsistent with the prevailing narrative, or perhaps 'unsafe,' and recording and reporting 'extreme' anti-government sentiment. The Stasi would be proud.
Who knows, your blog may even be on their radar...

Eamon Sloan said...

Karl mentioned sensitivity readers. I read a UK Sunday Telegraph article this week about the said readers, appointed by the book publishers, who are now working their way through Ladybird books. I can recall buying those books years ago for our children and not having problems of any kind with the storylines or the language. The sensitivity readers are considering whether characterisations of handsome princes or beautiful princesses are now appropriate. Gender pronouns, social class, lifestyle, diversity, long list - it is all up for review according to the Sunday Telegraph.

Another item which came across my news radar was from Sky News Australia showing drag queens entertaining children in a day-care centre. I suppose the argument was put forward that the drag queens were essentially circus clowns. I have heard of cases where some children have been badly spooked out by clowns and other performers. The news presenter’s question was what were the parents thinking of in allowing children, pre-schoolers, to be exposed to adult theatrics. Not the sort of theatrics I would be interested in. Maybe the parents came along for cheap thrills.

Hilary Taylor said...

Today I emailed a Press journalist & the editor, Kamala Hayman, about their dishonest headline about a visiting Brit women's rights campaigner & the NZGreens call to have her banned from entering NZ, good lord...naturally the headline called her a radical transphobe.I follow the woman on twitter since my consciousness was raised by 'Speak Up For Women' a couple of years ago over the self-sex ID bill in our Parliament. She believes that transwomen aren't women & actively campaigns for the retention of women- only spaces & the like. This makes her a 'radical transphobe' to the trans activists, hateful & someone to be targeted and shouted down wherever she goes. The Press lazily repeated this slur in their headline & when reporting. I reminded Hayman that practically all her readers would believe the same as Kellie-Jay and wondered how many trans activists were paying subscribers to her paper. She usually replies...let's see.
Re the deeply worrying campus puritans in the US, the most shocking footage has emerged from Standford Law showing a 5th Circuit Appelate judge attempting to deliver the lecture he was INVITED to deliver...extraordinary hostility from students and active collaboration from their DEI dean. It's unbelievable...except it's not. Can be googled.
Drag Queen story hour can range from innocuous (if they think they're being scrutinised) to's all abouyt the right-on-ness of the parents and barely at all about the children 'dragged' along.

Hilary Taylor said...

...I'm a member of the FSU, proud to be. Couldn't make it to the ChCh event sadly.

For anyone on twitter & re Ladybird Books there is a lovely twit to follow called Helen Day who features the historical Ladybird artists and their fine work.

Disinfo others here I find them a bunch of creeps & am outraged they're probably well-paid by taxpayers. Grrrr!

D'Esterre said...

Karl, with regard to the FSU's defence of drag queens reading to children in libraries, I was uncomfortable with it, despite my being an advocate of free speech. It seemed to me that there was an in-principle difference between that, and schools teaching the traditional view of marriage. And this link from the BFD reinforces my view. I'd be happier if the FSU took a much more sceptical line on this issue: