Bryce Edwards: Does freedom of speech extend to far-right voices?

Bryce Edwards: Does freedom of speech extend to far-right voices?

New Zealand has largely escaped the escalating debates and conflicts occurring in the US and elsewhere about whether to allow or ban offensive political speech. Until now. Two controversial Canadian speakers who have cancelled their NZ appearance after being banned from Auckland Council venues have ignited debates over “hate speech” and “freedom of speech”.

Lauren Southern and Stefan Molyneux had been due to appear next month at the Bruce Mason Centre in Auckland. But on 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. This is all covered by Anna Bracewell-Worrall in her news report, Auckland ‘alt-right’ event cancelled due to ‘health and safety’.

The article explains that the issue was sparked when “Auckland Peace Action (APA) called on the Government to not allow the speakers entry to New Zealand.” The group also threatened to disrupt the event, saying: “If they come here, we will confront them on the streets. If they come, we will blockade entry to their speaking venue”.

Mayor Phil Goff fronted the issue, and explained the decision: “I just think we’ve got no obligation at all – in a city that’s multicultural, inclusive, embraces people of all faiths and ethnicities – to provide a venue for hate speech by people that want to abuse and insult others, either their faith or their ethnicity”.

Event promoter, David Pellowe, then announced that the show was cancelled, saying “there were no other venues available at this late stage” – see the Herald’s Mayor bans controversial Canadian pair from talking in Auckland Council venues. He complains that Phil Goff’s decision is political, and that “Far from being willing to engage in a robust contest of ideas, he finds it far simpler to shut down any ideas he disagrees with.”

A victory against “hate speech”?

The other group attempting to prevent Southern and Molyneux from speaking was the New Zealand Federation of Islam Associations, who say the pair are spreading hate about Muslims. The Federation has been lobbying the Minister of Immigration and Immigration New Zealand to deny them entry to the country.

Federation president Hazim Arafeh explained that one of the two, Lauren Southern, should not be afforded the right to free speech, because she “abuses her right of freedom of speech. She’s just going to give a talk in which she’s just going to insult all of us… I don’t think insulting Muslims comes under free speech, that’s an abuse of freedom of speech” – see Emma Hatton’s article, Controversial speaker Lauren Southern ‘going to insult all of us’ – Islamic community leader.

This article cites Massey University’s Paul Spoonley categorising the pair as being “white supremacists” and their message as “hate speech”. But he is also reported as believing that “banning people entry to New Zealand would need to meet a high threshold and the decision warranted a public discussion.”

Many on the political left believe that threshold has been met by the couple. For example, writing at The Standard, Greg Presland argues that Southern’s message falls into the category of “hate speech” and “Freedom of speech does not require us to let her in to insult local communities” – see: The extent of the right to free speech, and Far right Canadian activist wants to come to New Zealand to insult local communities.

Saziah Bashir has an interesting opinion piece in favour of the clampdown on the Canadians, saying in her RNZ item that Southern’s “actions are actually physically and emotionally harmful” – see: Hate speech more than just ‘an unpopular opinion’. Therefore, any decision to deny them entry to New Zealand is quite straightforward and uncomplicated, especially because their presence here “risks the safety of an entire community” – Muslims.

She argues the “right to freedom of expression is not unfettered”, and because Southern and Molyneux have other ways to distribute their message (YouTube), their rights to freedom of speech would not be harmed by any ban on them.

Some of these debates about hate speech might sound esoteric, but for Oscar Kightley it’s very straight forward, because the concept of freedom of speech should include the freedom to ban people from coming to speak to others: “Of course, freedom of speech is an important principle, but that isn’t one way. Surely people have that same freedom to have their own reactions to any speech. Including the freedom to say: yeah nah, you can’t actually come into New Zealand and say that stuff” – see: We have the freedom not to stand such divisive speech.

Suppressing “free speech”?

The decision to ban the Canadians from council venues is A triumph for left-wing bigotry and intolerance according to Karl du Fresne, who says “July 6 was the day when extreme left-wing bigotry and intolerance triumphed over the democratic values”. He says that “Goff has betrayed us all” by capitulating to “fringe extremists like Valerie Morse” of Auckland Peace Action. It “sends a signal that all the extreme left has to do in future to deny a platform to people it doesn’t like is to threaten violent disruption.”

He also draws attention to the “irony” that Valerie Morse has previously escaped conviction for “burning a New Zealand flag in a protest gesture at an Anzac Day service in Wellington in 2007” because the Supreme Court ruled – rightly in du Fresne’s view – that “Freedom of expression quite properly allows New Zealanders to engage in acts that other people find deeply objectionable.”

Karl du Fresne believes freedom of speech, even for offensive speech, is highly desirable: “We live in a liberal democracy that depends on free speech and the free exchange of ideas and opinions” – see his second column on the matter: Let’s hear the Canadians for ourselves and decide then whether it’s dangerous.

He argues we should be, and are, robust enough to deal with fringe views: “New Zealand is by world standards a remarkably tolerant and moderate society, and stolidly resistant to inflammation by extremists of any stripe. Perhaps even more importantly, it’s a robust democracy that is perfectly capable of being exposed to rancid opinions without being swayed.”

This view is shared by leftwing blogger No Right Turn, who says “the answer to speech you don’t like is more speech, not less” – see: The cost of a free and democratic society.

He argues the threshold for banning something should be incredibly high, and this has not been reached: “Unfortunately, being insulted is just something people have to put up with in a free and democratic society, and our Supreme Court is on record (in Brooker v Police) as saying so. We have a right to freedom of speech in New Zealand, which covers not just the right of these racists to speak, but also the right of their racist audience to listen. Restricting that right pre-emptively requires a very high test: basically an announced intention on the part of the speaker to incite a riot. If that test isn’t met, there’s no justifiable reason to prevent them from speaking.”

The Dominion Post has a similar view, publishing an editorial that says a healthy society has to put up with some offensive views, and that “Without the possibility of offence we would be a bland, totalitarian state devoid of interest, imagination and ideas” – see: Tolerance is a virtue.

It argues a ban on such views are counterproductive, as it “plays into the hands of those seeking publicity and profile.” Furthermore, we need to distinguish between what is “truly damaging and hateful” and that which is “merely offensive and comfortably dismissed”. The editorial believes that Southern and Molyneux fall into the latter category.

There’s also the problem of giving politicians such as Phil Goff the power to make the decision on which political views to ban. This is the argument put by David Farrar who says “the Mayor now personally decides whose speech is acceptable, and can use an Auckland Council facility. Governments tend to own many large speaking venues so this in fact does massively restrict the ability of someone to do a public session” – see: Phil Goff the new commissar of speech.

Farrar wonders if future speakers who allegedly stir up religious tensions will also be banned: “now Goff has unilaterally announced his own test, let’s keep him to it. If you ever see a booking for a Council facility which has a speaker from an organisation with a history of anti-semitism or supporting terrorism, then make sure we all know so we can demand Goff be even handed.”

TV comedy writer Dane Giraud also gets serious, explaining why he’s baffled about “progressive” opposition to free speech, saying that dangerous ideas only become more dangerous when they are suppressed – see: Progressive opposition to free speech is completely baffling.

Finally, could Auckland ratepayers end up with a costly bill from the decision to cancel this event? Blogger No Right Turn has just blogged to say that the decision looks to be illegal, as it breaches the Bill of Rights Act, which includes “the right to freedom from discrimination on the basis of political opinion” – see: The cost of a free and democratic society II. He also says the decision sets a dangerous precedent: “Because if we let the mayor of Auckland decide what speech is acceptable in public facilities, then a future mayor may decide that they don’t like speech that we approve of. Like union meetings, or speeches in favour of reforming drug laws, or political movements against landlords and the rentier economy. Or speeches in favour of racial justice”.