Free speechA system of suppression is always apt to put down truth. —John Milton Areopagitica 1644

A very important and timely publication

By Roger Childs

This is definitely the year for Free Speech under attack, especially since the New Zealand government is tying itself in knots trying to define “hate speech.” This obsession has gained impetus following the Christchurch mosque massacres in March and subsequent concerns over what people should be able to say, transmit and, in the case of guns, own. However, trying to tighten the laws related to communication actually pre-dates the present government, and it was the National Party who passed the restrictive Harmful Digital Communication Act in 2015.

We live in a rapidly changing world where the issues involving free speech are becoming more complex. In recent years there have been millions of people on the move, mainly Muslim migrants heading for richer western countries including New Zealand, subsequently creating problems for the host nations. There are many groups and lobbies such as the “Me Too” women, the LGBT organisations, people who were sexually assaulted as youngsters in religious institutions, as well as immigrant communities, who are demanding recognition, respect and redress.

Many minorities who see themselves as having been exploited in the past and the present can quickly take offence and often claim to be victims not just because of their ethnicity and gender, but also religion and beliefs. The authors feel strongly that people should be entitled to express opinions about specific religious and other beliefs, as well as about the behaviour and actions of those who hold such views.

In contemporary New Zealand there are forces at work, often in high places and positions of influence, setting out to limit what people can say about minorities, issues and ideas, especially where viewpoints challenge politically correct positions and upset sectional interests. This means that free speech is definitely under pressure.

Analysing the challenges to hard won rights

Free speech under attack is written by five authors who are specialists in a range of fields. The book starts with Jeremy Fisher looking at how free speech evolved through time, notably in challenging the governments and censors of the day. Authorities have always worried about opposition and objections to their rule, whether it be from preachers, writers, pamphleteers, cartoonists or the media. Napoleon once said: Four hostile newspapers are more to be feared than a thousand bayonets.

Fisher also covers how there has been an insidious process, especially in the 21st century, to  imbed political correctness and pass laws to outlaw hate speech and challenge the right of well argued dissent. Peter Cresswell then addresses the theories related to free speech, hate speech, violent language, and how many people with different points of view are restricted in expressing them freely.

However, Chapters 11-17 look at the contemporary world and recent events in New Zealand which have been catalysts for the conflict of ideas and attempts to limit freedom of expression. These include –

  • The mid March 2019 mosque massacres in Christchurch.
  • The banning of a political pamphlet advocating equality in New Zealand.
  • The evolution of what Robert Stanmore calls Islamophobia.
  • Speakers being forbidden to speak in Auckland and Palmerston North because of security concerns.
  • The growing influence of Chinese economic, political and educational interests in New Zealand.
  • Viewpoints on immigration.
  • Challenges to the traditional free speech in universities – an excellent chapter by David Round.
  • The arguments unfolding over what compulsory New Zealand History should be taught in the curriculum. 

Along the way heroes and villains are identified, and terms such as de-platforming, the Thugs veto, tribalism, identity politics and intersectionality are explained. 

The place of the law in defining rights

David Seymour

Defender of Free Speech, David Seymour MP

Throughout the coverage, the laws and possible future restrictions related to free speech, people’s rights and hate speech are linked to various issues and developments. Underpinning the exposition of the five authors is the very real concern that the progress over centuries in winning freedom of expression is currently under considerable pressure and that good sense, political realism and intellectual honesty are being challenged.

The final chapter called  Hey, Give Us Back Our Rights! starts by making the crucial point that There is merit in Andrew Little’s call for a review of “hate speech” laws but not in the way he intends. The writer argues that the Human Rights Act 1993 and the Harmful Digital Communication Act 2015 need revision and backs ACT MP David Seymour’s idea of a Freedom to Speak Bill.

This is a book that doesn’t have to be read in order, as the chapters are largely stand-alone. However, there is a logic in the order of the coverage – history, theory, contemporary issues and developments. There does need to be greater accuracy in the first historical section on The Struggle for Free Speech, and some may find the theory and lengthy quotations in Chapters 4 and 5 heavy going, but overall this is a very readable, informative and thought-provoking analysis of one of the cornerstones of our democracy — freedom of speech and expression.

Free Speech under attack by Peter Cresswell, David Round, Robert Stanmore, Tim Wikiriwhi and Jeremy Fisher is published by Tross Publishing and retails for $35. It can be bought, with postage paid, from the Tross website.