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Free speech under attack?

Opinion Piece
Karl Du Fresne

Freedom of speech is a fundamental right in a liberal democracy — as important, even, as the right to vote, since 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.

Accordingly, the Bill of Rights Act states that every New Zealander has the right to freedom of expression, “including the freedom to seek, receive and impart information and opinions of any kind in any form”. Even before the Bill of Rights Act made it explicit, free speech was a right that New Zealanders took for granted. They exercised it (and still do) every day in letters to the editor and on radio talkback shows.

Yet a perception has grown in recent years that New Zealanders’ right to speak freely and to hear all shades of political opinion, short of those that incite violence and hatred, is under sustained attack. Concern at the fragility of free speech rights led to the formation this year of the Free Speech Union, which has drawn support from across the political and ideological spectrum. The Free Speech Union’s supporters, for example, include veteran leftists Matt McCarten and Chris Trotter.

One celebrated case involved the Canadian “alt-right” (so-called) speakers Lauren Southern and Stefan Molyneux, who were barred from speaking at a council-owned Auckland venue in 2018. The excuse used for denying them a platform was that the event might be disrupted by protesters.

Activists quickly got the message that they could force the cancellation of speeches by people they didn’t like simply by threatening protest action — a tactic sometimes referred to as the heckler’s veto.

This controversy is still being played out in the courts, where the crowd-funded Free Speech Union has gone all the way to the Supreme Court in a test case aimed at preventing public authorities from using the fear of disruption as an excuse to “de-platform” speakers.

In the meantime, other developments have reinforced the perception that freedom of expression in New Zealand is imperilled. The feminist group Speak Up For Women (SUFW), which advances the unremarkable view that only people born female can call themselves women, has been barred from holding meetings in public premises and had a prominent advertising billboard taken down in central Wellington.

SUFW’s struggle to get its message across in the face of determined opposition from transgender activists illustrates that the defence of free speech cuts across the usual ideological and political lines. People who identify with the radical left have found themselves on the same side as conservatives and libertarians.

In the latest outbreak of the speech wars, the action has shifted to a new and worrying arena.

Seven respected university academics found themselves effectively blacklisted in July after they wrote a letter to The Listener challenging the notion that mātauranga Māori — which can be defined as the traditional body of Māori knowledge — should be accorded the same status as science, as proposed by an NCEA working group preparing a new school curriculum.

In an unprecedented pile-on, more than 2000 fellow academics, urged on by professors Shaun Hendy and Siouxsie Wiles, signed a letter denouncing the Listener Seven and implying they condoned “scientific racism”. The response went well beyond legitimate disagreement. The sheer weight and vehemence of the denunciation sent an unmistakeable message to the academic community: express dissent at your peril.

More alarmingly still, two of the Listener Seven are now being investigated by the Royal Society — an organisation dedicated, ironically, to the advancement of science — and may be expelled.

What started as an academic debate has thus taken on the character of a heresy trial. Even more ironically, one of the professors under investigation, Garth Cooper, is a Māori who has earned international respect for his achievements in Māori health.

Once again, the Free Speech Union has stepped up by creating an academic freedom fund to help defend the two accused. If the complaint against them is upheld, union spokesman Dr David Cumin says, academics will inevitably feel less safe expressing honestly-held views on contentious issues.

The bottom line here is that science and academia need people who challenge accepted wisdom, otherwise we would be stuck forever in the status quo. But in New Zealand in 2021, the price for deviating from approved orthodoxy is punishment and ostracism.

■ Karl du Fresne is a freelance journalist and former newspaper editor. He is the author of The Right to Know: News Media Freedom in New Zealand, and is a member of the Free Speech Union.

  1. Aimee Milne says:

    Funny how you say the Molyneux couple were only ‘so called’ alt right. They are alt right, call it as it is. The majority of us didn’t want far-right white nationalist and white supremacist podcasters, political commentator, and banned YouTuber, who promotes conspiracy theories, scientific racism, eugenics, and racist hate speech. Free speech seems just an excuse these days to further those harmful ideals.

    1. Peter Jones says:

      Since when has the right to free speech become a “harmful ideal”?
      Who is this “majority of us” that you mention?

      1. Aimee Milne says:

        If that’s how you read it Peter, sure. Majority is majority.

        1. Gautam Sarup, Wellington says:

          A majority isn’t always just a majority. It is often a mob. It’s an ill society in which Molyneaux and Southern find support but it’s an even sicker one that attempts to shut them down.

    2. Martin Hanson, Nelson says:

      I watched Patrick Gower’s interview of Lauren Southern and Stefan Molyneux:
      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mUR9U6Srj7g
      While the interview can only be described as an embarrassment for New Zealand journalism, I do have one criticism of Southern’s comments. She failed to point out that ‘Islam’ encompasses a very broad spectrum of beliefs, ranging from those of ‘westernised’ Muslims who accord equal rights for women, to the other extreme who think that women who have sex outside marriage should be stoned to death – including, at the extreme of extremes, women who have been raped.
      It’s highly unlikely that any New Zealand Muslims take such an extreme view. Highly, but not vanishingly, unlikely. In the New Zealand Herald (July 5, 2005), Ruth Berry reported that Ashraf Choudhary, a Muslim Labour MP of Pakistani birth would not condemn the traditional Koran punishment of stoning for homosexuals and people who have extra-marital affairs.
      Berry said that Choudhary was between a rock and a hard place when he was asked on TV3’s 60 Minutes programme “Are you saying the Koran is wrong to recommend that gays in certain circumstances be stoned to death?”
      He replied: ” No, no. Certainly what the Koran says is correct.
      “In those societies, not here in New Zealand,” he added.
      Had Southern introduced this nuanced dimension to the interview, viewers might have been educated.

      1. Ken Ovenden says:

        Hi Martin, 2005, Berry in NZ Herald – is that all you can come up with? Give everyone a break, it is now 2021. Perhaps stoning the anti-vaxxers is next on your agenda, and you might call that education, LOL

        1. Martin Hanson says:

          I could have pointed out that not many years ago, Dr Mohammad Anwar Sahib, an Imam at the At-Taqwa Mosque in South Auckland was the centre of media attention for preaching that: “No woman can dare step out of her house without permission of her husband,” and, “The Christians are using the Jews, and the Jews are using everybody because their protocol is to rule the entire world”.
          Unsurprisingly, his statements evoked strong condemnation from The NZ Jewish Council, several Muslim groups, and political leaders such as the Hon. Peseta Sam Lotu-Iiga (National Party), David Seymour (ACT Party leader), and Winston Peters (NZ First leader).
          Conspicuously absent, however, was condemnation by the Labour Party and the Greens.

    3. John Timoney, Huruni says:

      Typical response of a fanatic. You have obviously never listened to Stefan Molyneux. And rather than debate the issues he raises, you resort to ad hominem argument

      1. Aimee Milne says:

        John. What are you talking about? ‘Fanatic’ ‘ad hominem’? Do you know what those words mean? If they’re alt right, they’re alt right. Nothing ad hominem about that. You just have to Google to see all the horrible racist crap they put out.

    4. J Lindsay, Napier says:

      You speak for ‘the majority’? – You start saying they are ‘alt-right’ but end up claiming they are white supremacists. No one has yet to point to any evidence for this (including yourself). And even if they were, they’d still be allowed to present their case. Just as you have printed a bunch of falsehood about them here.

      That is what freedom of speech is.

      1. Aimee Milne says:

        Alt right. White supremacy. Same diff

        1. Rupert Small says:

          Hook, line and sinker.
          NB; anybody who writes “same diff” can be immediately ignored and discounted.

          1. Aimee Milne says:

            Classism? Nice example ‘Rupert’. Totes spesh.

    5. Martin Hanson says:

      If you are referring to Stefan Molyneux when you describe ‘the Molyneux couple’ as promoting “scientific racism, eugenics, and racist hate speech”, it seems that either you hadn’t watched the Patrick Gower interview, or you simply felt he must be wrong because you found it offensive.
      So I’ll remind you of what he said: that average IQs vary among different ethnicities (‘races’).
      In view of its politically incendiary nature, I can’t imagine why anyone would want to do this kind of research, but it has been done, so we should deal with it.
      But how? It’s no answer to say that it can’t be true because it’s ‘racist’.
      It is here that a great many people are seemingly unable to distinguish between thoughts and feelings. Science is about ‘is’; politics is about ‘ought’. If such variation does exist, it is a scientific question, not a political one.
      My personal view is that it would be better for society were ethnic differences in mean IQ not to exist. But this is no reason to say that such differences cannot exist.
      So, even if these differences are real, so what? Contrary to what Auckland Mayor Phil Goff seemed to imply when interviewed by Corin Dann on Q + A, one cannot make statements about individuals from population data. We should treat individual people of different ethnicities the same as we would treat people of one’s own ethnicity. Only people who want to use research into ethnic differences to bolster subconscious feelings of inadequacy would want to treat other ethnic groups differently from their own.

  2. Rupert Small, London says:

    Sorry, David Cumin is a Jewish supremacist who is all too keen to remove the ability of my compatriots to follow New Zealand’s historic foreign policy in criticising the racist and murderous actions and policies of the settler colony of apartheid Israel and turn our free speech and such peaceful movements as BDS into anti-Jewish racism itself. Anti Zionism cannot be conflated by mendacious and sleazy operatives into (the meaningless) “anti-Semitism” that has become a battering ram to destroy the very thing he pretends to protect.
    Please wake up.

  3. Michelle Ahern says:

    I opened up the opinions page with trepidation, expecting to see the usual broad brush sweeping generalisations we have read lately. I was happily surprised to read this rational and thoughtful piece of writing. Unfortunately those who cannot hold their thoughts long enough to mature are spouting away once again in the comments here I see.

    1. Aimee Milne says:

      Michelle. You’re saying you’re ok with hate speech? I’m not. I’m not ok with racism and never will be. I don’t need to consider it at all. I can be quite forthright with my opinion because I believe in what I’m saying and educated enough to interpret these discussions. Why don’t you try being more direct in what you’re saying and read the definition of hate speech for a start.

      1. Martin Hanson says:

        So, what’s your definition of ‘hate speech’?

        1. Aimee Milne says:

          Hi Martin

          Hate speech: ‘To vilify, humiliate, or incite hatred against a group or a class of persons on the basis of race, religion, skin colour, sexual identity, gender identity, ethnicity, disability, or national origin’.

          Now, Michelle here, among others, keeps twisting the definition of hate speech by telling me that I am the hateful one, which does make me laugh to be honest.

          According to Michelle, it’s ‘hate speech’ to call people out on their harmful lies and misinformation. Oh the hypocrisy!! And…here we all are, openly discussing our thoughts on a column telling us openly and publicly, that freedom of speech is ‘under attack’. Oh the drama! I mustn’t say anything . . . we’re not free to speak.

          1. Wendy Leonard, Waikato says:

            Perhaps you would be good enough to direct your anti hate speech to the Govt forcing segregation of the unvaccinated, who are now as a group being attacked using hate speech, no matter why they haven’t had the jab. Or is that not hate . . . as the govt approves of it? Destroying people’s (health workers, Drs etc) careers because they do speak up against the govt, then ill-informed others use hate speech against them. Or do you see that as different and OK?

          2. Aimee Milne says:

            No Wendy. That’s not hate speech. Check the definition.

          3. Martin Hanson says:

            Earlier this year, Lisa Keogh, a law student at Abertay University, Dundee, Scotland, was accused of ‘hate speech’ and put under investigation by the university, because in a seminar she defined a woman as someone with female genitalia.
            Likewise, J K Rowling has been accused of ‘hate speech’ for defining women as ‘people who menstruate’.
            So, do you think they are guilty of ‘hate speech’?

  4. Karl du Fresne, Masterton says:

    In reply to Aimee Milne:
    1. I say “so-called” alt right because I’ve never been sure exactly what the term means. I suspect it’s a label of convenience that some people pin on anyone whose views they don’t approve of.
    2. Southern and Molyneux may hold obnoxious opinions, but we don’t know because we weren’t allowed to hear them. That’s the whole point.
    I don’t intend to contribute further to this discussion but I think it’s important to make those two points.

    1. Aimee Milne says:

      Hi Karl,
      I think this link explains ‘alt right’ quite well. Social media has given voice to these ideals, unfortunately, (especially for indigenous communities, women, LGTB, immigrants). Sadly it’s a growing movement. I believe in the regulation of hate speech. It does not mean I’m opposed to free speech….just the rhetoric where hate begins and is allowed to fester and spread into real world micro aggression or violence.

      https://www.splcenter.org/fighting-hate/extremist-files/ideology/alt-right