Don Brash was invited to speak at Victoria University by the Shalom Students Association.
In an email from the Freee Speech Colation Jordan Williams says:
Last night Don Brash gave his speech to a handful of people at Victoria University. I say a handful because the University limited those who could be in the room to just ten!
Other events are the University are fine with much larger numbers. But for some reason COVID is much more a concern when it is Don Brash, or when his speech is about free speech…
The Free Speech Coalition thought it deserved a wider audience.
Here it is:
IS FREEDOM OF SPEECH UNDER THREAT IN NEW ZEALAND?
On the face of it, that’s a silly question. In New Zealand, freedom of speech is enshrined as one of our fundamental rights in the Bill of Rights Act of 1990. Section 14 of that law, headed “Freedom of expression”, notes 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.”
That sounds pretty unambiguous. But as you probably know that piece of law is qualified by another, namely Section 61 of the Human Rights Act of 1993, which states:
“It shall be unlawful for any person –
- to publish or distribute written matter which is threatening, abusive, or insulting, or to broadcast by means of radio or television or other electronic communication words which are threatening, abusive, or insulting; or
- to use in any public place…, or within the hearing of persons in any such public place, or at any meeting to which the public are invited or have access, words which are threatening, abusive or insulting.”
By comparison with a great many other countries, New Zealand stacks up pretty well.
In most Muslim-majority countries, for example, there are laws which make it a criminal offence to speak ill of Islam, or to make an attempt to convert people from Islam. Laws against blasphemy – speaking ill of Islam – can get you killed in Pakistan. Even suggesting that Muslims are free to vote for a non-Muslim as Governor of Jakarta can get you jailed in Indonesia, as the former Governor of Jakarta discovered to his cost.
A couple of years ago, a Turkish writer who had been invited to give three lectures in supposedly modern Malaysia was detained and forced by the religious affairs authority in that country to abandon his third lecture. His crime: arguing that Islam should never use coercion either to win converts or to keep those who are already Muslim in order.
Nor is it only Muslim-majority countries which seek to suppress free speech in the name of religion. Since 2013, insulting the feelings of religious believers has been a criminal offence in Russia.
In many countries, anti-defamation laws are used to control political opponents.
Thailand, for example, prohibits even the slightest criticism of its king, who is believed to be semi-divine. Anyone who “defames, insults or threatens the king, the queen, the heir-apparent or the regent” can be imprisoned for up to 15 years. The government which seized power in 2014 has charged scores of people with lese-majeste, and a great many more for violating an order forbidding public discussion of a proposed referendum.
Even in ultra-modern Singapore, government officials have sued and bankrupted critics for statements that politicians in many other places would have disputed, laughed off or simply ignored.
In the United States, the first amendment to the constitution appears to provide a strong guarantee of freedom of speech.
But in recent times we’ve seen increasingly aggressive attempts to shut down free speech, perhaps especially at US universities.
In early 2014, Brandeis University, one of America’s leading universities, revoked its invitation to Ayaan Hirsi Ali to receive an honorary degree at its commencement ceremony. Protestors had accused her – a strong advocate for the rights of women and children, especially in the Middle East – of being “Islamophobic”.
Three years later, in 2017, there was the celebrated case when Charles Murray was unable to speak at Middlebury College, with the female host of his lecture suffering injury as she tried to extract him from the melee of rowdy students. And Charles Murray’s offence? Though he is an anti-Trump Republican, and the author of such notable works as Human Accomplishment and Coming Apart, he is still blamed for what is seen as an unforgivable sin, namely suggesting in a book he co-wrote with Richard Herrnstein more than 20 years ago that some races might be slightly brighter, on average, than other races.
The same year, Berkeley’s KPFA Radio cancelled a planned interview with Richard Dawkins. The interview had been planned to discuss Dawkins’ book The Selfish Gene, which had been named the most influential science book of all time by the Royal Society a week earlier. The interview was cancelled because of Dawkins’ alleged attacks on Islam – which Dawkins strenuously denied.
And the intolerance has spread beyond the universities. There was, for example, strong opposition from some members of the orchestra when conservative commentator Dennis Prager was invited to conduct the Santa Monica Symphony Orchestra. Prager was on record as favouring the adoption of a child to a married man and a woman, in preference to a single person or to a same-sex couple; and as noting that, if there is no God, ethics are subjective. Happily, the orchestra held fast, and Prager conducted the orchestra.
Even more happily, in the last few years there has been a strong push-back against these attacks on free speech. The University of Chicago has issued a firm statement, since adopted or endorsed by more than 30 other colleges and universities, including Princeton, Johns Hopkins and Purdue, which states that its role is not “to attempt to shield individuals from ideas and opinions they find unwelcome, disagreeable, or even deeply offensive”.
A letter sent to the incoming class went further: “we do not support so-called ‘trigger warnings’, we do not cancel invited speakers because their topics might prove controversial, and we do not condone the creation of intellectual ‘safe spaces’”.
Well, what of New Zealand? The debate about what should be allowed has been well and truly joined in the last few years.
In 2016, there were two speeches which triggered complaints to the Human Rights Commission.
One was by Muslim cleric Shaykh Mohammad Anwar Sahib, at the time the secretary of the Ulama Council of the Federation of Islamic Associations of New Zealand. In his speech, he said that “Jews are using everybody because their protocol is to rule the entire world.” He went on to say that “Jews are the enemy of the Muslim community”, and made offensive remarks about women. Then Ethnic Communities Minister Sam Lotu-Iiga responded quickly, reminding everybody that hate speech is prohibited in New Zealand under Section 61 of the Human Rights Act.
The second speech was by self-proclaimed Bishop Brian Tamaki. Quoting the Book of Leviticus, he stated that the Bible made it clear that gays, sinners and murderers were responsible for the recent earthquakes.
Perhaps it was these speeches, perhaps it was recent developments at US universities, or perhaps it was the reaction to the suggestion that there should be a club for “Europeans” at Auckland University, but something provoked Professor Paul Moon, History professor at AUT, to launch his petition in defence of free speech early the following year.
It was a relatively short petition, but made some essential points:
“Freedom of speech underpins our way of life in New Zealand as a liberal democracy. It enables religious observance, individual development, societal change, science, reason and progress in all spheres of life. In particular, the free exchange of ideas is a cornerstone of academe…
“Individuals, not any institution or group, should make their own judgments about ideas and should express these judgments not by seeking to suppress speech, but by openly and vigorously contesting the ideas they oppose, without discrimination or intimidation.
“We must ensure that our higher learning establishments are places where intellectual rigour prevails over emotional blackmail and where academic freedom, built on free expression, is maintained and protected. We must fight for each other’s right to express opinions, even if we do not agree with them.”
Voltaire’s famous line comes to mind: “I disapprove of what you say, but will defend to the death your right to say it.”
In short order, Professor Moon got 27 well-known New Zealanders to sign the petition – New Zealanders as diverse as Tariana Turia and Don Brash!
But in some respects things have gone backwards since that time.
In April 2018, physicist and retired historian Bruce Moon was invited to give a speech by the Nelson Institute, in the Nelson public library. He chose to speak about the “fake history” which is too often being used to reinterpret the Treaty of Waitangi. Shortly before he was due to speak, the Nelson library cancelled the booking on spurious “health and safety” grounds.
In the middle of 2018, two so-called alt-right Canadian speakers were prevented from speaking at venues owned by Auckland Council on grounds which Auckland mayor Phil Goff argued at the time related to what they might say (though Auckland Council had had no problem in allowing Kim Dotcom, Julian Assange and Edward Snowden to use the Town Hall a year earlier).
That prompted Jan Thomas, the Vice Chancellor of Massey University, to pen an op-ed for the New Zealand Herald in July that year asserting that “the right to speak freely is a bedrock principle of democratic society. This includes the right to hold opinions and express one’s views without fear and the ability to freely communicate one’s ideas. History is littered with examples of tyrants who have sought to stymie this freedom of expression and, conversely, reveals the tragedy of those whose voices have been silenced under such oppression.”
But she went on to argue that “freedom of expression is one thing, hate speech is another”, endorsing Auckland Council’s decision to ban the two Canadians from speaking at a Council-owned venue.
And the following month she banned me from speaking on the Massey Palmerston North campus, ostensibly on security grounds but actually because she thought that in talking about my time as the Leader of the National Party I might chance to say something that might offend some of her staff. It was an outrageous ban, and when her emails were released under the Official Information Act, it was quite clear that she had lied in claiming I had been banned on security grounds. She should have resigned, or been fired.
In March last year, New Zealand saw the tragedy of 51 Muslims killed, and many more injured, by a man who clearly hated Islam with a passion and who saw it as his duty to kill as many Muslims as he could. No sane person could condone such an atrocity and the perpetrator has rightly been sentenced to life imprisonment with no possibility of parole.
But the event has prompted serious discussion about whether New Zealand needs laws prohibiting so-called hate speech, with both Attorney General David Parker and Justice Minister Andrew Little talking publicly about the need for laws to criminalise hate speech. The Human Rights Commissioner has also called for such laws.
But it’s a hugely tricky area, and perhaps that explains why we haven’t yet seen any draft legislation which would restrict hate speech.
What does “hate speech” actually mean? Nobody defends the right for people to urge violence against persons or property of course. But beyond that opinions will differ.
Should Israel Folau be allowed to point out that the Old Testament says that gays will go to hell after they die unless they repent of their homosexuality? I would argue “yes”.
Should Muslims be allowed to argue that gays, adulterers, and those who abandon Islam should be killed, thus implicitly condoning murder? I would argue “no”.
But those are, at least to me, relatively straightforward cases. There are many other areas where societal attitudes are effectively shutting down discussion or debate, with mainstream media simply refusing to entertain debate in areas where views differ strongly.
For example, it is judged to be too insensitive, or too judgmental, to suggest that the children brought up by their two natural parents are likely to have a much better start in life than those brought up in single-parent families, or in families where the adult male changes at irregular intervals.
It is regarded as quite inappropriate to recommend that adoption be regarded as an alternative to either abortion or single parenthood.
It is regarded as verging on treason to question whether human-induced climate change is really the most serious challenge facing humanity, despite the contrary views of people as different as Canadian Patrick Moore, one of the founders of Greenpeace, and Matt Ridley, a well-known British science writer.
It is regarded as far too judgmental to suggest that some cultures are superior to, or more advanced than, others.
It is regarded as quite inappropriate to publicly question the wisdom of allowing as immigrants people who believe that adulterers should be stoned to death.
And you dare not suggest that the Enlightenment civilization brought to New Zealand by the early British settlers was significantly more advanced than the Maori culture of the early nineteenth century, even though early nineteenth century Maori had no written language, had not yet invented the wheel, and were still practising cannibalism.
You may not even question the proposition that Maori are indigenous, even though Maori themselves talk about Maori arriving by canoe from a distant place within the last 1,000 years, vastly more recently than humans arrived in North America some 15,000 years ago, or in Australia more than 50,000 years ago.
It is regarded as racist to suggest that all New Zealanders should have equal political rights, despite that being the clear meaning of Article III of the Treaty of Waitangi and the only basis for a peaceful society in the long-term.
And the mainstream media censor any who would argue that case. As you may know, Casey Costello and I are the two spokespeople for the Hobson’s Pledge Trust, an organisation committed to advancing equal citizenship in New Zealand. We get almost no media coverage, despite issuing umpteen press statements, and when we do get media coverage most of it is focused on me: I can be caricatured as an elderly white male racist. Casey can’t be: she is a young woman of Ngapuhi and Anglo-Irish ancestry, so doesn’t fit the need to describe Hobson’s Pledge as a male, white, organisation.
A couple of years ago, I wrote an article about the way in which affirmative action in favour of Malays had damaged most Malays, based on an article from the well-respected British weekly The Economist. I noted the parallels with New Zealand. I submitted the article in turn to the Sunday Star Times, the Herald on Sunday, the Otago Daily Times, and the Listener. All declined to publish it.
Hobson’s Pledge is routinely described by our critics as “racist”, which surely is a totally Orwellian use of the word. It is those who argue for preferential rights for some based on their race who are, of course, the real racists.
As long ago as 2017, well-known writer and former editor of the Dominion-Post Karl du Fresne noted that then Police Commissioner Mike Bush had talked to the Human Rights Commission about the possible need for a law prohibiting “hate speech”. Mr du Fresne commented:
“A hate speech law would mark a radical and dangerous extension of existing police powers: from protecting people and property against clearly identifiable threats, such as assault and theft, to making value judgments about whether a citizen has crossed the blurry line between fair comment and something much darker.
“Such a law would be welcomed by activist minority groups which want the state to protect them from any comment they see as hurtful or oppressive. But freedom of speech is far too precious in a democracy to be undermined by subjective judgments from police officers about what constitutes incitement to “hate” as opposed to a robust expression of legitimate opinion.”
OK, but what would I do with the speech by the Muslim cleric? Given the long and appallingly negative effects of anti-Semitism, for me it’s a line call. But on balance I think I would allow it, as long as I am allowed to argue publicly that people who hold such misogynist and anti-Jewish views should not be allowed to become permanent residents or citizens of New Zealand.
And the speech by Brian Tamaki? Again I would allow such speech, as long as I am free to note that the guy is a nutter, and that the Book of Leviticus also bans the eating of meat containing blood and the wearing of any garments made of two types of fibre. No rational person takes such strictures as relevant today.
I don’t know whether I am optimistic or pessimistic about the future of free speech. A very noisy number of New Zealanders – who unfortunately control at least the taxpayer-funded media in New Zealand, and the editorial policy of our two major newspaper chains – have a narrow view of what can be shared with the wider public.
On the other hand, when the Auckland Council banned the two Canadians from speaking in Council-owned facilities back in 2018 a very diverse range of New Zealanders – from Chris Trotter on the left to Lindsay Perigo on the right – quickly formed the Free Speech Coalition, and raised money to take the Auckland Council to court arguing that banning the Canadians was quite contrary to the Council’s obligation to Auckland citizens.
And after I was banned by the Massey Vice-Chancellor I was phoned by a former Parliamentary colleague – a member of the Alliance Party no less – who told me that while he and I differed on almost every policy issue, we were at one on the importance of free speech.
A podcast of the speech and the Q&A that followed it is here.