Another shocking example of squandering taxpayer money by this government.

by Jonathan Ayling

The pace never slows at the Free Speech Union. Every week there’s a new target in our great game of ‘censorship whack-a-mole’, whether it be Government departments, commissions, or even telecommunications companies.

Our would-be censors are relentless, but so are we. Check out the latest on the state of free speech in New Zealand and our work to protect it below:

$595,000 spent by Ministry of Justice on failed attempt to pass hate speech legislation

Courtesy of Twitter sleuth Thomas Cranmer (a pseudonym), the full cost of the contractors and consultants for the Government’s failed attempt to pass ‘hate speech’ legislation was revealed last week: $595,000 for 1509 hours of contractor work. Doing some quick math, that comes to $400 an hour of your taxes spent on one of the greatest threats to free speech in New Zealand in a generation.

And to think they could have come to us to get the necessary advice for free!

Clearly, in the fight against Government censorship, we weren’t only up against a majority Government with near unprecedented legislative power but also the big money at its disposal. Seeing figures like the above only makes me more proud that together we were able to stare down the Government on these efforts. I think it also shows the value that all our supporters get when they contribute financially to our efforts. You can trust that your investment in free speech isn’t being used up at $400 an hour and, unlike whichever consultants the Ministry of Justice seems happy to hurl your money at, we get results.

We won the battle against the hate speech legislation efforts, but our work is far from over. Would you help us out in these efforts and make a worthwhile investment in your right to speak freely?

Local Government review moderates submission process on blatantly partisan lines

Earlier this year, when we submitted on the Review into the Future for Local Government, our interest was raised further by the Review’s “Transparency and Moderation Statement”. Here, the Review asserted its right to exclude any submissions it deemed “racist,” “discriminatory,” or “insulting” from being published alongside all the other submissions.

Naturally, we saw how the Review could use such a policy to put its fingers on the scales of the consultation process, redacting dissenting submissions to create a façade of public support.

Once the Review was finished we OIA’ed them for all the redacted submissions, and let me tell you — our worst fears were realised.

Of the 608 unique submissions made on the Review’s draft report made available for publication, 58 were not published for such ambiguous reasons as “offensive language,” “offends cultural values,” “insulting,” and “misinformation.” Margaret, that’s nearly 1 in 10 submissions that the public won’t be able to see to judge for themselves the outcome of the consultation process. Reading through the redacted submissions ourselves, it is abundantly clear that the “moderation policy” of the review was simply a means to remove from publication submissions they didn’t like.

All redacted submissions were dissenting of the recommendations of the Review, particularly on issues of co-governance, which made up a significant portion of its efforts. Kiwis often look at the published submissions of consultations like this Review to gauge the levels of public support for the final recommendations.

By moderating submissions in such a blatantly partisan way, the Local Government Review is setting up a façade of public support on what are clearly contentious areas of policy development. We’re seeing Government entities be increasingly willing to judge what is and isn’t acceptable in public discourse, and seeing such censorial efforts in something as democratically pertinent as a public consultation is a real cause for concern.

We’ve written to the Minister for Local Government for his views on whether he thinks such blatant partisan moderation of public consultation is acceptable, and if not, what he’s actually going to do about it.

Submission made on Department of Internal Affairs’ media censorship proposals

Submissions on the DIA’s media regulation proposals are still open for a few more weeks. Today, we’ve sent in our own comprehensive submission. I earnestly believe that these proposals are a greater threat to the ability for Kiwis to speak their mind freely than even the hate speech proposals. They represent such an egregious overreach of New Zealand’s content regulation, and we’ve made sure in our submission to explain fully just how devastating an impact these regulations could have on our free press and free internet.

<<Click here to read our comprehensive submission to the DIA on the “Safer Online Services and Media Platforms” proposals>>

With submissions still open on the proposals, our tool is still active, making it as easy as possible for you to make your voice heard on this latest attempt to limit what you can say and see online. The Government’s backdown on the hate speech legislation shows that the public pressure we exert works- but we need you on board to make that happen (and we cost far less than $400 an hour).

<<Click here to submit against online censorship now in less than 5 minutes>>

We’ve also OIA’ed all correspondence between the Minister and DIA on these proposals. The response to our request has been delayed… twice. We’re not hopeful it’ll be released before the end of the consultation. That gives us the feeling there’s something they want to keep under wraps. The Minister has so far been coy about her own views on these proposals- lets see if we can’t get something more concrete. Heading into an election, voters deserve to know just where our representatives stand on such a democratically important issue.

Spark’s social media manager endorses online censorship, the Free Speech Union responds

Last week, Meta, the parent company of Facebook and Instagram, launched a new text-based app to compete directly with Twitter. It is called ‘Threads.’ Since Twitter was purchased by self-professed free speech absolutist (arguably a misnomer) Elon Musk, moderation policies have become noticeably less strict. This has caused concern among some Twitter users, and Meta stands to gain from this cohort who want to see the use of certain words and the expression of certain ideas banned from their social media. This fact was clearly demonstrated over the weekend when a wee-furore emerged over whether ‘TERFs’ (trans-exclusionary radical feminists) should be tolerated on Threads. The subject was initially raised by Shaneel Lal, the prominent transgender university student, who wrote: ‘Dear Threaders, Can we agree that we won’t tolerate TERFs on Threads. They’ve made the lives of trans people living hell on almost all platforms. Let’s not allow their hatred to poison this app too.’ 

SparkNZ, the largest mobile operator in New Zealand, replied to this comment, ‘Yes PLEASE, wholeheartedly co-signed.’ And then it all kicked off, with references to Spark eventually trending on Twitter. Calls quickly emerged to boycott Spark, with individuals posting throughout Sunday confirmation of their cancelled accounts with the mobile service provider. In the context of several other prominent recent boycotts (notably Bud-light in the US), which have cost companies billions, this could have been a costly discussion for SparkNZ to wade into. 

However, Lal contacted One New Zealand (formerly Vodafone), the provider to which most individuals switched. Lal claimed ‘anti-queer groups… are rallying people to leave SparkNZ and join you… Where do you stand on trans rights?’ One New Zealand replied, ‘We don’t want them either. Not welcome here. We stand with you, SparkNZ and anyone else brave enough to call them out.’ 

It seems SparkNZ’s bravery didn’t last very long, though, as several hours later, they issued a new statement claiming, “At Spark we believe the internet should be an inclusive space for all people… We know our original posts did not reflect this well, and that’s something we will learn from.”

We contacted SparkNZ to offer them support in providing training and resources to their staff. Considering they’re a teleco whose very job is to facilitate the communications and speech of Kiwis, you’d think it’s relevant to their work.

But their Corporate Relations Director, Leela Gantman, told us that we are comfortable that we have the appropriate protocols and training in place. Um… if that were true, I don’t think this would have happened, Leela. 

Unfortunately, starting a new social media platform with calls for a certain community to be ‘not tolerated’ doesn’t indicate that Threads will be any different from the other platforms we have. But if on Threads, other social media platforms, and across our conversations generally, we respect the right for others to speak, not only when we agree but especially when we disagree, we may find there is actually less hate than we thought; that we actually can still use the same mobile services providers and social media platforms, despite our differences, and that we’re all better off for it.

Submission made on Independent Electoral Review’s Interim Report 

It really seems to be the week we have Government consultations on our minds, as today we also submitted our feedback to the Independent Electoral Review on their Interim Report. Free speech rights are foundational to our democracy and electoral processes, and we want to ensure our election is a “contest of ideas” and that the competition is as fair as possible.

Almost surprisingly for us these days, the Review shows it was well aware of the free expression rights involved in the election system, and we were happy to support many recommendations that took a speech-maximising approach. Such recommendations included ensuring that voting remains voluntary, that scrutineers should lose the ability to force Kiwis to reveal whether they have voted or not, and relaxing election advertising regulations to give more leeway to Parties on how they wish to connect with voters.

Not all recommendations went the right way, however. Consistent with many attitudes of Government entities around disinformation these days, the Review recommended extending the timeframe of the offense of sharing false information to influence voters. Margaret, I don’t know about you, but I really don’t want the Government to be able to prosecute people for allegedly telling lies during the voting period. When you consider that the law offense includes the punishment of disqualifying someone from voting or standing as a candidate for election, one can see how ripe this law is for abuse.We contest that lies must be beaten with education and the truth, not censorship. For the public to trust our democratic instructions, these institutions must trust the public to come to the truth themselves.

<<Click here to see our full feedback on the Independent Electoral Review’s interim report>>

As the election campaign starts to heat up, our team is working on a report for you, so you can see where each Party stands on an array of issues related to free speech. However, we’re not fooled that our fight for free speech is one that Parliament can fix.We’re dedicated to the long-term work of fostering a culture that values free speech. We need more than (but certainly no less than) law changes and political speeches to achieve that.  

Our team runs on passion for the most part, but we are keenly aware that we can’t do this work without you. If the Ministry of Justice has hundreds of thousands to spend on advancing hate speech laws, we need something to push back with. Can you put $100 towards the fight to help keep us going? We’re in this together.