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Free speech: Rhetoric and reality

Opinion Piece

The far-right have developed a concern for civil liberties over the past few years and would have you believe that they are the true defenders of freedom.

Don’t be fooled, there is a huge chasm between their rhetoric and the reality. Their call for freedom of speech would quickly change if they ever got a chance of power, and they would quickly remove that right from those they perceive as their enemies.

Here in New Zealand there has been some sympathy for the cancelling of an event by Canadians Lauren Southern and Stefan Molyneux, who have built a reputation for making controversial, racist statements. They had been due to appear next month at the Bruce Mason Centre in Auckland but last Friday the Auckland City Council, which owns the venue, pulled the plug on the event due to “security concerns” involving the “health and safety” of the presenters, staff and patrons of the event.

In response, a planned event initially in support of the imprisoned English far-right mouthpiece Tommy Robinson has morphed into a general free speech rally to be held this Saturday in Wellington, with concurrent events planned for Auckland and Christchurch.

Those campaigning against the Canadian duo have been accused of drawing attention to Southern and Molyneux with the call for their banning, but ignoring them will not make them go away. Allowing far right activists to gather unhindered will only see them grow in popularity and influence.

Richard Spencer, a prominent far-right activist in the United States, said earlier this year that he has had to rethink his public events after a number of protests by anti-fascist activists throughout the US. This speaks volumes as to the importance of keeping the pressure on the far right.

Others argue that they should be allowed to speak and engaged in debate to expose the poverty of their ideas. However, it is not the quality of ideas that make people support them, it is the chance to wield power over others in society that make them so attractive to their followers.

Of course, the most common objection to a no-platform stance for the far right is the belief that free speech is an essential right for everyone, but no one is arguing for the abandonment of the right to free speech.

It is important to oppose the extreme right because of what they do, or because of what their words lead others to do. Giving them a platform to speak opens the door to their supporters feeling justified to do physical harm to people.

Public speech promoting ideologies of hate, whether or not you consider it violent on its own, always complements and correlates with violent actions. Just two examples include Darren Osbourne who crashed his van into a group of worshippers outside a London mosque and was a follower of far-right websites and Twitter feeds, including those from Tommy Robinson; and, again in the UK, the murderer of MP Jo Cox, Thomas Mair, shouted “Britain First”, the name of a British fascist organisation when he committed his murder.

If you care about free speech then it is essential to protest against those who would take it away.

We should not stand idly by when speech is used to threaten and cause harm to others, or when it reinforces the oppressive, violent thinking of others.

In this situation we should not shy away from confronting it in the same way we would confront any other kind of abuse or oppression. This is not being against free speech, this is simply self-defence.