by Karl du Fresne

As noted in a blog post earlier last week, I attended the first annual conference of the Free Speech Union at Auckland’s Aotea Centre on Saturday 5 November.

I thought it was an outstanding success, not so much in terms of the number of attendees – roughly 150, although I understand several hundred more watched online – as for the quality of the speakers and the ideas they put forward.

The keynote speech was delivered by Jacob Mchangama, a Danish lawyer, human rights advocate and author of the book Free Speech: A Global History from Socrates to Social Media. (His father came from the island of Comoros, off the coast of East Africa – hence the very un-Danish surname).

One of his key points was that historically, free speech has been a vital tool for the oppressed. He cited as an example the American civil rights movement, which without free speech would have been, in his words, “a bird without wings”. Conversely, controls on speech have been used throughout history to serve the interests of those in power, as in apartheid-era South Africa.

Mchangama sounded a warning that’s highly relevant in the current New Zealand context – namely, that a common argument in favour of limiting free speech is that it’s necessary to protect minorities. But the supposed cure can sometimes be more dangerous than the ailment. The Nazi Party was heavily censored under hate speech laws during Germany’s Weimar Republic but turned that suppression to its advantage, claiming it was proof that the people in power were protecting Jews, Marxists and other groups the Nazis despised. 

What follows, in no particular order, are a few other points that I scribbled in my notebook during panel discussions that featured, among others, economics professor Ananish Chaudhuri, Jewish community spokeswoman Juliet Moses, ACT MP Karen Chhour, Victoria University academic David Bromell, history professor Paul Moon, National MP Paul Goldsmith and Michael Johnston from the New Zealand Initiative.

■ New Zealanders should have been allowed to read Christchurch mosque killer Brenton Tarrant’s manifesto. After all, we’re allowed to read Mein Kampf. How can we counter dangerous ideas if we’re prevented from seeing them? Suppression can make them more powerful (see the above reference to the Nazis). You don’t want to risk making martyrs out of monsters.

■ Are we safer not knowing? No. We can’t fight ideas that are hidden underground. Criminalising bad ideas doesn’t make them go away. People who are forced off censorious social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook are likely to be driven onto secretive channels and echo-chambers where toxic theories can flourish unchallenged.

■ Transgender advocates have been among the most aggressive opponents of free speech. Yet without freedom of speech, many of the gains won by sexual minority groups – for example, homosexual law reform and same-sex marriage – wouldn’t have happened.

■ The dynamics of the debate over free speech are not constant. What is today an accepted mainstream position might in time become an unpopular minority view. Restrictions on free speech that you consider acceptable or desirable now might eventually be used against you. To put it another way, be careful what you wish for.

■ People who propose hate speech laws often do so in good faith (this from Juliet Moses). We shouldn’t always assume they do so for the wrong reasons. But former Wellington city councillor Stephen Rainbow forcefully countered that there is viciousness online and jobs can be threatened by the enemies of free speech. “There are some nasty people out there.”

■ Racial or ethnic groups are not uniform in their opinions, despite pressure to conform to what is seen as the “correct” position. This point was made quietly but eloquently by Karen Chhour, who is of Ngapuhi descent but was rebuked in Parliament by Labour deputy leader Kelvin Davis for “looking at the world from [sic] a vanilla lens” and urged to “cross the bridge from the Pakeha into the Maori world”. The presumption was that Chhour couldn’t be a real Maori because she was in the wrong party. (Davis’s slur, for which he later apologised, was an echo of Willie Jackson’s attack on David Seymour for being a “useless Maori”, apparently because Seymour doesn’t support Labour’s separatist policies.)

■ The cancellation of so-called “alt-right” Canadian speakers Lauren Southern and Stefan Molyneux, followed soon after by Massey University’s ban on former National Party leader Don Brash, was a resounding wake-up call for many conference attendees who had previously taken free speech for granted. The Covid pandemic was another catalyst; Level 3 lockdown restrictions were seen as an assault on civil liberties.

■ Young New Zealanders – i.e. the generation now coming through universities – are incapable of dealing with opposition and the stress of having their ideas challenged. Part of the solution is in raising children to be more resilient. In the words of Michael Johnston, a former Victoria University lecturer, universities should be the nerve centres of free speech. Free and open debate is crucial to a better understanding of society.

■ Incitement to violence is the dividing line between what’s an acceptable expression of opinion and what isn’t.

■ There are bullies in universities and government departments who try to shut down ideas and opinions they don’t approve of, but who quickly back down when challenged (this from FSU chief executive Jonathan Ayling, speaking from experience).

■ Free speech may be under attack in New Zealand, but things could be far worse (Moses again). “In some countries, this meeting wouldn’t happen.” The participants would quietly disappear.

■ How do we promote free speech? By standing up for people whose ideas we loathe.

A disappointing but sadly unsurprising aspect of the conference was the almost total absence of journalists. I sat next to the editor of a high-profile national publication but gathered she was there to observe rather than report. (Good on her for attending, all the same.) Otherwise the only working journalist present appeared to be the freelancer Yvonne van Dongen, who told the conference about the extraordinary obstacles, excuses and deceptions she encountered – despite her well-established credentials – when she tried to get an article published about the free speech debate. No one who heard van Dongen’s account of her travails, for which the FSU honoured her with a special award, could delude themselves that the mainstream media can be regarded as allies in the campaign for free speech.

This perception was reinforced by the fact that although Jacob Mchangama was interviewed on RNZ by Kim Hill, not a word appeared in the mainstream media about the conference. To put it politely, this is odd when you consider that freedom of the press and freedom of speech are inextricably intertwined. Journalists depend on the right of free speech every day of their working lives, both in what they report and in what they say in editorials and opinion columns. Without it they couldn’t function.

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