by Roderick Mulgan
I can’t list everything that the FSU has done this year, but here are some highlights.
Our team focuses on three workstream: Campaigns, Cases, and Content. Through each of these areas, we’re able to defend free speech today, and ensure that it’s stronger for tomorrow.
‘Hate Speech’ Laws
Despite the First Reading of the Human Rights Amendment Bill occurring last week, which adds ‘religious group’ to those protected from hate speech laws, we all know the Government intended for the hate speech law changes to be much bigger.
Of course, the most public work was done last year, when we orchestrated the strongest public consultation ever. Our supporters told the Minister of Justice clearly that Kiwis didn’t need their feelings protected from offensive speech. We ended up with the most signed petition on this issue, calling for the changes to be scrapped.
That why each one of us were thrilled when Minister Kiri Allan announced last month that 5 of the 6 proposals were being dropped, and the only change would be to include one extra group.
Rest assured, we will continue to oppose this change and outline clearly why hate speech laws, even the limited ones we have, are a bad idea. But when New Year comes, we’ll all go back to work without the threat of our Government sending Kiwis to prison for three years because they insulted someone. That’s a major win for all Kiwis’ free speech!
Netsafe Online Safety Code
In our digital age, it seems more so than anywhere else, speech on line is seen as an intolerable threat. The Online Safety Code, which went to public consultation in February, was an example of the ‘elite hysteria’ (as Jacob Mchangama calls it) over online speech.
Our basic opposition to this Code was that speech which is not illegal in real life, shouldn’t suddenly become illegal online. We continue to work with Internet NZ, and other key stakeholders in making sure the potential of the internet remains free for all.
Mallard Must Go
Another reason Kiwis’ speech is more free this Christmas, is because of the pressure we were able to build against then-Speaker of the House, Trevor Mallard, and his unacceptable disregard for free speech during the Parliamentary process.
There was a lot to this story, but his most “banana-republic” style antic was issuing 2-year trespass notices from Parliament against former MPs (including a Deputy Prime Minister) and the Free Speech Union’s own Stephen Franks. He used his authority to silence and banish those who simply engaged in dialogue with political dissidents, including journalists who were just doing their job. We are used to seeing tantrums like this from corrupt autocracies, not mature representative democracies, and we know Kiwis from across the political spectrum agreed with us.
We asked you to stand with us and say ‘Mallard Must Go’. So as we raise some bubbly on Sunday, maybe pause for a moment and remember, Mallard went. (And give the poor Irish a thought too, as now they have to deal with him as the Ambassador there).
Bethlehem College Public Letter
When a petition was started, calling on the Ministry of Education to close down state-integrated Christian school, Bethlehem College, for including a traditional view of marriage in its core values, we stood up for a forgotten idea in our time: tolerance.
As with all the campaigns we run, it’s not about the ideas
themselves. It’s about the fact that in a diverse society, tolerance, and allowing others to say things you may not like, is vital if we’re going to live together peacefully. Our public letter received about 3 times the support of the petition for the closure, and our ability to stand for Bethlehem Colleges’ right to speak reminded the public that even unpopular ideas should be… tolerated.
TVNZ-RNZ merger petition
Another major issue, which seems destined for the Government’s rubbish bin, is the TVNZ-RNZ merger. First initiated by the free speech-loving Kris Faafoi, it was then handed off to Willie Jackson, a Minister we understand is also ‘deeply committed to Kiwis’ freedom to expression.’ That’s why we’re sure they were so pleased when we reminded them that editorial independence is crucial in a democracy, and without a diverse press (including intellectual diversity), an agenda can quickly take root.
Thousands have stood together saying that free speech needs to underpin our media, and this merger is simply not going to do that. Problematically, our society is more and more monological- dominated only by ‘approved’ perspectives. Without media that represents the differing perspectives of Kiwis across the country, our ‘social cohesion’ is not going to improve. We’ve kept pressure on this issue, as have others, and thankfully, in the new year we should see a good result.
Terrorism Charges for terrorist activity and content only
More recently, we also went to Parliament and stood against Clause 15 of the Counter-Terrorism Acts Amendment Bill. This legislation would make simply possessing certain objectionable material a terrorism offense for some, even though the material has nothing at all to do with terrorism.
The term ‘terrorist’ is an incredibly heavy one, and where this is genuinely a threat of an attack, or someone inciting terrroism, our laws must respond forcefully. But when a teenager playing an ‘objectionable’ video game could end up being labeled a terrorist for simply possessing a game that they can easily download online, the balance is not right. This was sloppy drafting by the Government, who now doesn’t want to admit it made a mistake. With thousands of you joining us against this, and our lobbying, we’re confident we’ll also see this amended in the New Year.
On top of the campaigns we’ve run, it’s a privilege to stand with our members and defend their right to speak in the workplace. As Jonathan says, those who think they can control what we say as employees are nothing more than bullies, and as with most bullies, as soon as you stand up and push back, they usually fall over. While we’re not able to share many details of these cases, your support means we can stand with these individuals when their jobs may hang in the balance to defend their right to speak.
Mortician challenged over transgender pronoun
That was certainly our experience with a mortician based at a large hospital, who when presented with a deceased body referred to the individual as you’d anatomically assume. While the individual had been alive, this deceased had identified as trans-gender, and therefore a colleague alleged it was entirely inappropriate and ‘hateful’ to not use their ‘preferred pronouns’.
The employer didn’t know what to do when suddenly there was someone reminding them of their duties to respect their employees speech rights. Before long, they confirmed in writing that the mortician ‘had acted entirely appropriately, and that the matter was settled’ from their perspective. Big ups for free speech in our health care service.
Bluebird chips saleperson
You may remember, Geoffrey, a few months ago, we told you about the Bluebird chips salesperson who was fired for posting on their private social media about another company’s use of te reo in their marketing. Within several hours of posting, and incredibly offensive responses to her perspective, she was dismissed from her job for her ‘racist’ speech.
There are many different perspectives on the role te reo should have in our country, some more ‘inclusive’ than others. But at the end of the day, if an individual is being fired for having the wrong perspective on this issue, ‘inclusion’ is not where we’ve landed. If an individual voices their opinion online, others are equally entitled to voice their opinions in response, and say they’re wrong. Yet, an employer should know better than to take personal speech on social media, written off-the-clock, and fire an employee over it.
We’re pleased to say, while we can’t include details, this case had a happy ending.
Moncrief-Spittle case conclusion at Supreme Court
Our longstanding legal fight with a subsidiary of Auckland Council has finally come to a conclusion before the Supreme Court. While not everything we wanted, our Chief Counsel was pleased with the ruling which endorsed the importance of free speech. Our previous success in the High Court in a case against Palmerston North City Council has been reconfirmed, and is strong precedent to defend speech rights in New Zealand.
Because of the specific details of the case, the ruling also strengthened the ‘thug’s veto’ in some specific situations, which reminds us of the need to continue in this fight. But overall, it was a fight worth showing up for.
The work of our team has been consistently seen across TV, Radio, Newspapers, and in live events all year. There’s way too much to include here, but some top picks of our op-eds are:
– “Free speech got us here by tolerating hurtful views” (LGBT rights) by Ani O’Brien. Dane Giraud’s comments in Stuff “We need a spirit of tolerance, not a rush to cancel from left or right”. A guest op-ed from a young free speech advocate at Otago University, Tomas O’Brien (no relation to Ani) “Free speech: we all need to contribute”. And my own thoughts in the Herald on the Bluebird Case I mention above, “The right to reasonable debate is being lost”.
There have also been many pieces from Jonathan Ayling in:
- The Local Government Magazine– “Democracy & free speech- two sides of the same coin”
- Stuff– “Christopher Luxon needs to say where he stands on hate speech laws”
- The Spectator Australia– “NZ hate speech laws: legislation is no antidote to hate”
- The Platform– “Worlds of Journalism Study shows concerning trend, but without free speech there is no free press”
We’ve also produced a podcast with tens of thousands of downloads. We know that our material is downloaded and listened to every week by MPs in Parliament, civil servants, journalists, legal professionals, and many more.
On top of our engagement with media, we’ve also produced a number of reports. We’ve gotten into the specifics of how a lack of free speech affects our society, and why this is a foundational liberty.
The research we’ve done on academic freedom, for example, is the first time we can see this has been done throughout New Zealand.
Jacob Mchangama Tour and Live Events
We have been able to hold live events across the country this year, platforming key debates, experts on the history and importance of free speech, and opportunities to meet with others who stand for this freedom. We have meet on 5 of our university campuses, and sat down with the Vice-Chancellors of Massey University, Canterbury University, and Otago University.
We also hosted Danish expert, Jacob Mchangama, and toured the country with him. He also spoke at our AGM, where more than 500 Kiwis gathered either in person or online to hear him speak.
There’s so much more I could say, but as you can see, we’ve been busy. Next year is going to be big, as we continue to make sure our politicans stand for our free speech rights, our universities produce a generation of Kiwis who value free speech, and our media enable the debate and address different sides of complex questions.