I wrote this newsletter recently to update you on the work the Free Speech Union is doing in our battle for free speech. But following the disturbing scene we saw yesterday at Parliament, I wanted to share some thoughts first.
Protest will always highlight contentious issues, that's its role, so I am aware that supporters of the Free Speech Union will have a wide variety of feelings and perspectives on what we've seen unfold. But hopefully we can agree that our dedication to peaceful, tolerant free speech is needed now more than ever.
Reflection on the protest at Parliament
Nearly 3 weeks ago, we released a media statement outlining that the Convoy 2022 had been clearly out of line in many ways, and beyond the pale of free speech. This was in reference to forcing roads to close due to illegal parking and making businesses shut their doors. We concluded by saying 'As unpopular as they may be in and around Wellington, the current protesters are... entitled to peacefully assemble.'
From the outset, we have seen this group of protesters treated very differently to other similar protests, even at Parliament. Dame Whina Cooper's Maori land rights hikoi, or those who occupied private land like Ihumātao come to mind. It is clear that considerable anger and resentment underpinned the protests at Parliament, and it is in moments like that where free speech is most powerful, to express the disenfranchisement peacefully. But that is obviously not what we saw unfold.
Deep-seated resentments exist among different parts of our society. There is disagreement about what size these different perspectives are (some claim 30% of Kiwis supported the protest, initially at least) but really, that's beside the point. Free speech is only free speech if anyone, no matter how insignificant, has the right to voice their perspective- that's how free speech defends the minority and strengthens our democracy.
What emerged by the end of yesterday was a riot. It was not free speech. As always, we need to insist on the fact that the most peaceful way for individuals in society to disagree (which at some point they will) is through free speech. Free speech is about dialogue (which was notably absent in this case). As we move forward from this event, we run the risk of becoming more divided and angry than ever. But disagreement doesn't mean we must hate each other- free speech may mean we'll hold completely different beliefs, but it also gives us a way to move forward together despite those different beliefs.
Supreme Court deliberates on access to public venues
As I mentioned last week, the Supreme Court has considered the oral hearings in our appeal of the Moncrieff-Spittle vs Regional Facilities Auckland Limited case. The hearing ran over time and we have a strong sense the Justices were all very interested in the arguments presented.
What we hope to get out of the Supreme Court is confirmation that a public venue is subject to public law obligations that provide clear and principled guidance where the relevant freedoms are in issue.
If you're interested in the details of the case and arguments, you can read our lawyers' roadmap of the case here, and the respondent's roadmap here. You can also read our submissions here, and the respondent's here.
What happens next is out of our hands, but rest assured our experts have advocated tirelessly and ferociously on our behalf, and we are immensely grateful to them for having lent their expertise.
It is significant that the Free Speech Union has been able to argue in favour of free speech before the Supreme Court. It will likely be many months of internal discussion between the Justices before they rule. Hopefully we'll see a law defining decision emerge. As soon as we have a judgement, we'll let you know.
Netsafe confirms they are no friend of free speech
After several request and weeks of waiting, Netsafe has finally confirmed the total number of submissions which were made on the consultation of the draft code they released.
You'll remember we were concerned that this code would effectively circumvent Parliament and introduce hate speech laws and 'misinformation' regulations for online speech. This would have made some speech which is legal in every day life, illegal online. We knew that thousands of our supporters had stood with us by telling netsafe to 'keep legal speech free.'
Of the 4,678 total submissions, 4,337 were made by you, Free Speech Union supporters specifically endorsing our submission. That's 92% of submissions. Talk about a stand for free speech!
Everyday I am more convinced that unless we make a concerted effort to fight for free speech in New Zealand, in just a few years it could be eroded. But I'm also more convinced everyday that there are still free speech champions out there who are willing to stand and fight for this important liberty.
To those who submitted on this code, thank you. Your submission made a difference. And it turns out our concerns regarding Netsafe and their stand on free speech are well-founded.
The Free Speech Union wants to be a constructive partner with those who will help protect Kiwi's speech rights, that's why we applied to become a member of Netsafe. However, our application was declined as 'it would seem that the objectives of Netsafe are not well aligned to the values of the Free Speech Union stated on this webpage: https://www.fsu.nz/values.'
That is as clear an admission as we're likely to get that Netsafe cares not for free speech.
Controlling ideas through 'plain language officers'
It's not uncommon for legislation going through Parliament to be a 'do-nothing-law' which makes little difference to everyday Kiwis. The Plain Language Bill in the name of Rachel Boyack is an example of this. But unfortunately, Bills like this can often have unintended consequences.
This legislation requires all communications which come out of the public sector and Government to be written plainly so that everyone can clearly understand them. By itself, we applaud the intention. But (isn't there always a but), this Bill would require every government department to have at least one 'plain language officer', who would oversee all communications which are released, to ensure they are 'clear and accessible.'
Free speech is just as important within government departments and Crown entities as in the general public. The public service cannot function effectively if it cannot choose its language freely. So creating formal oversight for communication roles does not bode well for policy advisors, communication managers, or others composing ‘speech’ in the public service.
Unintended consequences could easily occur if the legislation doesn’t incorporate safeguards to prevent the widening of roles and compliance requirements, which is exactly what we have called on the Select Committee to do. Where ‘plain language officers’ are introduced, just ‘language officers’ could easily soon take their place. To control language is to control the ideas we can communicate.
Parliament should not constrain the public service’s capacity to engage with all ideas, and to communicate regarding them, despite ensuring that the ideas are communicated in clear and accessible ways.
Calls for protest to be illegal outside schools
We've kept you up to date with the 'Safe Areas' Bill currently going through Parliament, which would prohibit protest outside of abortion facilities. The key objection we've had against this Bill is that it sets a precedent that could easily be applied to many other situations.
And that's exactly what we saw last week when listeners of Newtalk ZB’s Canterbury Mornings with John MacDonald were treated to an on-air rant decrying the ‘appalling’ ‘awful, awful’ and ‘dangerous’ people protesting outside of Tuahiwi School in North Canterbury as the Prime Minister visited. Echoing tones we’ve recently heard from senior ministers in Parliament, MacDonald drew to a close with the comment:
"They are despicable. And I think the best thing that could happen would be a blanket ban on protests outside schools."
In our weekly column on the Platform (a new independent media outlet run by Sean Plunket), I explained the Free Speech Union insists that threats of violence and intimidation are beyond the pale of free speech, and acts of violence are the very antithesis of what we stand for. And that is the beauty of free speech - it helps us all express ourselves while avoiding intimidation or violence. It is actually the most peaceful, less dangerous path forward (where danger means actual, objective, physical harm).
Ironically, John MacDonald's characterisation of them could quite possibly fall afoul of hate speech laws which were proposed last year and are set to be introduced into Parliament. And this irony is what highlights the ‘appalling’ ‘awful’ and ‘dangerous’ agenda of those who oppose free speech. It always ends up undermining all of our right to express ourselves. That’s an own goal for a media personality who gets paid to give his opinion.
Last week, we released a podcast with National MP Penny Simmonds and ACT MP Brooke van Velden who both sit on the Parliamentary Health Select Committee, which considered the Safe Areas Bill. In the discussion, we considered why the idea that free speech or protest should be relegated to only certain places is such a bad idea.
If you're looking for some interesting reading this week on free speech (on top of the great podcasts and blogs we've produced above, of course) why not check out these articles:
- When did we stop listening? The Spectator
- What College Students Really Think About Cancel Culture. The Atlantic
Whether it's fighting for the independence and freedom of the press, arguing for free speech in the highest court in the land, or standing for academic freedom and supporting the speech of academics, free speech is the bedrock of our civil liberties and it needs some champions today.
Thank you for your support.
Free Speech Union
Jonathan Ayling is the spokesperson for the
Free Speech Union