by Karl du Fresne

I delivered the following speech (little of which would be new to regular readers of this blog) at a meeting of the Free Speech Union at Victoria University last night. Most of the approximately 80 people who attended were middle-aged or older, suggesting freedom of speech isn’t exactly top of mind for the students the FSU had hoped to attract. On the other hand, it’s possible the poor student turnout had something to do with the fact that posters advertising the meeting were repeatedly taken down and replaced with ones saying “Stop Hate Speech” and labelling the FSU as “racist, homophobic and transphobic hypocrites”. It’s hard to engage meaningfully with that level of undergraduate bumper-sticker mentality, but at least they didn’t try to disrupt the meeting.

My old friend and former journalism colleague Barrie Saunders, who’s also a member of the union and is here tonight, sent me an email last week ahead of this talk.

Barrie has always written very concisely and his email consisted of just one line. “Karl”, he said, “did you ever think ten years ago you would be speaking about free speech?”

The answer, of course, is no. Ten years ago we smugly believed that all the big debates about freedom and democracy had been won and we could all relax. Ha! More fools us.

The American political scientist Francis Fukuyama even wrote a book about it, called The End of History and the Last Man, in which he postulated that with the end of the Cold War, humanity’s ideological evolution had reached its end point and we could all bask forever in the sunlit uplands of liberal democracy.

How wrong he was, and how naive we were to believe it. Because in the past 10 years or so – and that’s how quickly it has happened – all our comfortable convictions about the unassailability of free speech have been turned on their heads. Suddenly we find ourselves fighting again for rights we assumed were settled.

We’ve become accustomed to hearing the words, “I support free speech, but ….” New Zealand is full of people in positions of power and influence who purport to defend free speech, but always with the addition of that loaded word “but”. You can’t say you support free speech and then, in the next breath, put limitations around it beyond the ones that are already clearly established in law and broadly accepted, such as those relating to defamation and incitement to hatred or violence,

We’ve been introduced to phrases unheard of a few years ago: cancel culture, speech wars, hate speech, gender wars, safe spaces, culture wars, trigger warnings, transphobia and no-platforming. We’ve acquired a whole new vocabulary.

We’ve seen the creation of multiple no-go zones where no one is permitted to say what they think for fear of offending someone or oppressing a supposedly vulnerable minority group.

We’ve seen the emergence of a media monoculture in which all mainstream media outlets adopt uniform ideological positions that effectively shut out alternative opinions, even when those marginalised voices may represent mainstream opinion.

We’ve seen traditional ideological battle lines totally redrawn as people on the left and right of politics unite around the need to save freedom of speech from a new and powerful cohort of people who have co-opted the term “hate speech” as a pretext for banning any opinion that they dislike.

We’ve even seen radical feminists, who were once at the cutting edge of politics, demonised as dangerous reactionaries who must be shut down because of their opposition to a virulent transgender lobby that appeared to spring out of nowhere.

All this has happened within a remarkably short time frame. Mainstream New Zealand has been caught off guard by the sheer speed and intensity of the attack on free speech and as a result has been slow to respond. But what’s at stake here is nothing less than the survival of liberal democracy, which depends on the contest of ideas and the free and open discussion of issues regardless of whether some people might find them upsetting.

I could recite a long list of incidents, but to save time – and for the benefit of people here who may not have closely followed the free speech debate – let me just remind you of some of the better-known ones:

First up, Don Brash – barred from speaking at what was intended to be a low-key Massey University seminar where he was invited to talk to political science students about his political career. Now regardless of what you think about his politics, the civil and scholarly Brash is no one’s idea of a dangerous demagogue. Yet the vice-chancellor of Massey, who as an Australian veterinary professor is eminently qualified to decide what opinions New Zealanders can safely be exposed to, cancelled Brash, citing “security” concerns – a fashionable pretext, as we’ll see shortly.

It later emerged that in reality, the vice-chancellor didn’t want Massey to be seen as endorsing what she described as “racist behaviours”. This was a reference to Brash’s involvement in the group Hobson’s Pledge, although Hobson’s Pledge is expressly opposed to racism and in any case had nothing whatsoever to do with the planned seminar.

Emails subsequently released under the Official Information Act showed the vice-chancellor frantically casting around for spurious “mechanisms” under which she could legally ban Brash from speaking. Even people fiercely opposed to Brash’s politics were appalled by this flagrant curtailment of his right to free speech.

Now let’s move on to the Canadians Lauren Southern and Stefan Molyneux, who were barred from speaking at an Auckland Council-owned venue following the intervention of a grandstanding mayor – again, under the pretext that protesters might disrupt the event.

We still don’t know what poisonous beliefs the Canadians were supposedly peddling because we were never allowed to hear them. That cancellation was a catalyst for the formation of the Free Speech Union, which has taken a case all the way to the Supreme Court in an attempt to clarify whether threats of disruption should be allowed to override free-speech rights. The outcome of that case is currently pending.

The union has made it clear, incidentally, that it neither supports nor opposes whatever it is that Southern and Molyneux stand for. The point at issue is the right of New Zealanders to be exposed to opinions and ideas regardless of whether people like the mayor of Auckland and the Massey vice-chancellor personally approve of them.

The right of free speech, after all, means the right to hear as well as the right to speak. Our Bill of Rights Act doesn’t just talk about the right to speak freely. It refers to “the freedom to seek, receive and impart information and opinions of any kind and in any form”. That seems pretty clear-cut and unambiguous. To deny New Zealanders the right to hear opinions that some politicians and public officials don’t like is a flagrant abuse of power and must be challenged at every turn, which is exactly what this union is doing.

Now, another notable case – notable for all the wrong reasons. Seven distinguished academics wrote a letter to The Listener questioning the notion that matauranga Maori, or traditional Maori knowledge, should be given the same status as science. That triggered what was possibly the most shameful demonstration yet of intolerance toward ideologically unfashionable ideas.

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 something called “scientific racism”.

The sheer weight and vehemence of the denunciation sent an unmistakeable message to the academic community: express dissent at your peril. Both the Tertiary Education Union and the vice-chancellor of Auckland University, who should have led the way in defending the seven professors’ academic freedom, shamefully did exactly the reverse.

What started as an academic debate on an issue of public importance thus took on the character of a 14th century heresy trial. Two of the Listener Seven faced expulsion from the Royal Society – an organisation dedicated, ironically, to the advancement of science.

Once again it was intervention of the Free Speech Union, combined with an outpouring of international derision from luminaries such as Richard Dawkins, that persuaded the Royal Society to pull its head in. Last month the union was able to announce that the society had called off its witch-hunt – but too late, I would suggest, to salvage its credibility.

Those three examples give some indication of what the defenders of free speech are up against, but not all cases attract that level of public attention. Please allow me to touch on a few others that show how insidious attacks on free speech have become.

There was a mini furore at last year’s Featherston Booktown festival, where organisers cancelled a Harry Potter quiz for fear that it might distress the transgender community, given that J K Rowling is a vocal opponent of transgenderism. In another exquisite irony, the same book festival included a panel discussion on cancel culture. As I wrote on my blog, this was the point at which real life did its best to outdo satire.

The Booktown organisers could have driven a stake into the ground and politely told the objectors to bugger off but they didn’t, and the result was another grovelling capitulation to the enemies of free speech.

In yet another exquisite irony, there was the case of the late Jim Flynn, an internationally acclaimed emeritus professor of political studies at Otago University. Professor Flynn wrote a book entitled In Defence of Free Speech: The University as Censor, but was advised that his British publishers had changed their minds about publishing it because it raised “sensitive topics of race, religion and gender”. So a book about the dangers of censoring free speech for fear of causing offence was itself cancelled for fear of causing offence.

On a lighter note, there was a complaint to the Advertising Standards Authority in 2019 about an advertising sign for Streets ice cream that said “ice cream makes you happy”. According to the complainant, the sign promoted an unhealthy relationship with food. Now you might think the  authority would have politely told the complainant not to waste its time, but no; it solemnly ruled that the sign should be removed because “the implicit claim that there is a link between ice cream and happiness could potentially undermine the health and wellbeing of consumers”. The enforcers of free speech are not noted for their sense of humour.

Another case that might at first glance be dismissed as flippant involved a bulldozer in Marlborough. At the height of the Black Lives Matter crusade following the police murder of George Floyd, the bulldozer owner, obviously feeling things had got out of hand, spray-painted the words “ALM Equal Rights for Kiwi Whites” on the blade of the bulldozer – the letters ALM standing for “all lives matter”. For this dangerous act of incitement he received a visit from the local police. A neighbour had complained that the words were racist and the police persuaded the bulldozer owner to paint over them.

The particularly disquieting aspect here is the involvement of the police. There’s a very real prospect that with the proposed criminalisation of so-called “hate speech”, it would fall to the police to determine which opinions cross the legal threshold. We have ample evidence from Britain of the dangers that arise when the police are politicised and over-zealous officers take it upon themselves to decide what speech is “safe”.

Now, speaking of the police, I want to refer briefly to the blogger Cameron Slater. It emerged late last year through an OIA request that Slater had been under police surveillance. A police intelligence analyst was concerned that Slater was publishing information that denigrated Labour party policies and individuals linked to them. Another officer expressed concern that Slater was “anti-government” and a senior sergeant suggested they should pay him a visit.

In other words there are people in the police who apparently think that anyone who criticises the government should be watched. This is how police states begin. Fortunately in this case, wiser senior officers stepped in before things got out of hand.

Of course Slater is a highly controversial figure and a lot of people dislike him, but it’s cases like this that test our real commitment to free speech. As the left-wing American activist and writer Noam Chomsky has said, “If we don’t believe in freedom of expression for people we despise, we don’t believe in it at all.” [For the record, I don’t despise Slater, though there have been many occasions when I’ve wondered about his judgment.]

Speaking of Chomsky, a striking aspect of the speech wars is that they cut right across the traditional battle lines between left and right. It’s a fact of history that suppression of free speech has far more often been used against the left than the right, which probably explains why veteran leftists such as Chris Trotter and Matt McCarten are supporters of the Free Speech Union. Martyn Bradbury is another on the left who advocates forcefully for freedom of expression; there’s no one more vigorous in his tormenting of the woke. 

The reality is that the enemies of free speech have no fixed ideology. Control is enforced with equal brutality whether it’s Nazi Germany or communist North Korea. The only thing the enemies of free speech have in common is a desire to exercise untrammelled power and to forcibly suppress any speech which threatens that power.

As it happens, the present threat to free speech in New Zealand doesn’t come from either the traditional left or the traditional right. It comes from a powerful new cohort that largely controls the national conversation. This cohort is dominant in politics, the bureaucracy, academia and the media and regards the exercise of free speech as serving the interests of the privileged. Free speech to them means licence to attack oppressed minorities and is therefore something to be deterred, if not by law then by denunciation and intimidation.

Depressingly, this group is entrenched in universities and libraries – institutions that have traditionally served as sources of free thought and access to knowledge. Libraries were at the forefront of the effort to shut down the feminist group Speak Up For Women, which was targeted by aggressive transgender activists because it opposed legislation allowing men to identify as female. It was only after this union went to court on the feminists’ behalf that libraries in several cities were forced to back down and allow them to hold public meetings.

A common factor in these instances is the belief that people have a right not to be offended and that this right takes precedence over the right to free speech. It’s as if the woke elements in society have developed an allergic reaction to the robust democracy that most of the people in this room grew up in, where vigorous debate was seen as an essential part of the contest of ideas that democracy depends on.

If a statement can possibly be interpreted as a slur against one’s gender, race, body type or sexual identity, it will be, no matter how innocent the intention of the person who made it. Apologies will be demanded and the ritual humiliation of the transgressor inevitably follows.

The purpose is clear: it sends a message to others that they will get similar treatment if they’re bold or foolish enough to challenge ideological orthodoxy. Yet paradoxically, the same people who insist on the right not to be upset don’t hesitate to engage in vicious online gang-ups and ad hominem attacks on anyone who disagrees with them.

A recurring theme in the speech wars is the notion of safety – not safety from physical danger, which is how most people understand the term, but safety from anything that might upset people or challenge their thinking.

Some of us first became aware of this phenomenon in 1991 when the Christchurch nursing student Anna Penn was effectively expelled from her course after being branded as “culturally unsafe”. Since then the highly inventive concept of “safety” has widened further, to the extent that it’s now invoked if there’s any risk that some fragile soul might feel psychologically damaged by something written or said.

This confected notion of safety was made explicit in law earlier this year when Parliament passed the so-called Safe Areas Act, under which people can be prohibited from maintaining protest vigils within 150 metres of any place where abortions are performed.

In this case the word safety had nothing to do with real threats of violence or intimidation. A pro-life group wrote to all the country’s district health boards asking if they had received any complaints about harassment or intimidation from staff or women attending abortion clinics. None had. In any case, the Law Commission had already advised the government that the legislation wasn’t necessary because existing laws had the situation covered.

As one pro-life activist said, the law change addressed a problem that didn’t exist. It was passed solely to reinforce an ideological shibboleth.

The Safe Areas Act was a test of this union’s commitment to free speech because the union had to disentangle the implications for free speech from the polarising issue of abortion, on which many of its members have conflicting opinions. But the union emphatically opposed the legislation and said in its submission, and I quote: “It is not the speech of the majority that requires vigilant protection. It is the speech of the few that must be jealously guarded.”

Regardless of your views about abortion, there are several worrying aspects of this new law. First, it appears to introduce a highly subjective concept of entitlement to protection against emotional distress.

Second, the anti-abortion group Voice for Life is concerned that it could create a precedent under which anti-abortion opinions could be classified as hate speech under proposed new laws that the government has so far kept under wraps.

Third, it creates the impression that the right to protest is subject to an ideological test. There are now two categories of protest group – those that are acceptable and those that aren’t.

The right to protest is conditional on the protest being one that those in power approve of. It’s hard to imagine, for example, that Parliament would pass a law creating safe zones for people attending defence industry seminars. Yet in 2019 one such conference was cancelled because the organisers, citing past experience with aggressive protesters, were concerned about the safety of delegates. Needless to say the cancellation was greeted triumphantly by the disrupters.

Safety, then, is a highly elastic concept – critically important for women attending abortion clinics, even if no risk of harm exists, but not a problem if those who feel threatened are white guys in suits.

The enemies of free speech are blind to the contradictions in their position. They bang on about the right to be safe but applaud aggressive and intimidating behaviour against people they don’t like. And they demand protection against hate speech while freely indulging in it themselves on Twitter and other social media platforms, their purpose being to bully people into silence.

Read the rest on Karl du Fresne’s blog