Free Speech Again

Written by Dr Don Brash

A couple of months back, I wrote a column about Phil Goff’s purported refusal to allow two Canadians to speak at an Auckland Council-owned venue (I say “purported” because, when challenged, Council lawyers eventually admitted that actually he had no power to impose such a ban, which was actually imposed by Regional Facilities Auckland on safety grounds).

Little did I know that within weeks I myself would be banned from speaking at Massey University by the university’s Vice Chancellor, again purportedly on health and safety grounds.

Months before, I had been invited to talk to the university’s Politics Club about my time in politics. That didn’t seem like a terribly controversial subject. But perhaps I should have anticipated trouble because, just a couple of weeks before I was due to speak on 8 August, the Vice Chancellor had written a column for the New Zealand Herald in which she drew a sharp distinction between free speech, which she claimed to allow, and “hate speech”, which she clearly deplored – and claimed was exemplified by the views expressed by Hobson’s Pledge, of which I am one of the two spokespeople.

On 7 August, I was advised by the Politics Club that I would not be allowed to speak on campus. The Vice Chancellor issued a press statement which made a very brief reference to security concerns but spoke at greater length about the possibility that I might say something with which she disagreed.

Her statement mentioned that I had been a supporter of the “right-wing Canadian speakers Lauren Southern and Stefan Molyneux”, though she should certainly have been aware that I was not a “supporter” of the two Canadians (about whom I knew almost nothing) but of their right to speak.

She went on to say in that press statement that she totally opposes hate speech and noted that my “leadership of Hobson’s Pledge and views he and his supporters espoused in relation to Maori wards on councils was [sic] clearly of concern to many staff, particularly Maori staff. Whether those views would have been repeated to students in the context of a discussion about the National Party may seem unlikely, but I have no way of knowing. In my opinion the views expressed by members of Hobson’s Pledge come dangerously close to hate speech. They are certainly not conducive with [sic] the University’s strategy of recognising the values of a Tiriti o Waitangi-led organisation”.

She admitted in a radio interview that, though she claimed to have made her decision on security grounds, she had not consulted either university security staff or the police before making the decision to ban me from speaking. And it is abundantly clear from the tone of her press statement that the real reason for the ban was that she didn’t like Hobson’s Pledge or our support for the citizens of Manawatu and Palmerston North in voting down the proposal to create racially-based wards in the two districts.

Moreover, what was revealed weeks later (thanks to a request by David Farrar under the Official Information Act for relevant email traffic about her decision) is that for several weeks prior to the Vice Chancellor announcing that I would not be allowed to speak she had been anguishing about how she could best achieve that objective. “Security concerns” were always an excuse, and a pathetic one at that.

This is the most appalling situation. That a university Vice Chancellor, and particularly one who pretends to believe in free speech, could behave in this way ought to fill all those who value free speech with horror.

It is very clear from her own press statement, and even clearer now that we have seen her emails plotting how on earth she could prevent me from speaking, that she doesn’t really believe in free speech at all – she banned me on the off-chance that I might say something “dangerous” – such as that the Treaty of Waitangi guarantees all New Zealanders equal rights.

But at time of writing, and with uncertainty whether Jan Thomas will do the honorable thing and resign her post, the incident has had some positive effects.

First, it caused a huge outpouring of support for the principle of free speech from across the political spectrum. I noted in my earlier column on this issue that people as politically different as Chris Trotter and Lindsay Perigo had publically lent their names to the campaign against Phil Goff’s “ban” of the two Canadians. Much the same happened following my own banning.

Matt Robson, for example, Jim Anderton’s deputy in Parliament during some of the years I myself was in Parliament, phoned me on the day of the ban to say that, though we disagreed on almost every policy issue, we were totally in agreement about the importance of free speech. He subsequently lent his name to a full-page ad in the Herald on Sunday on 12 August seeking support for making the Free Speech Coalition a permanent feature of the New Zealand landscape.

Second, by total coincidence I had agreed to be the lead speaker for the affirmative on the moot that “PC culture has gone too far to the point of limiting freedom of speech” at a debate hosted by the University of Auckland Debating Society just two days after the Massey ban. This too had been arranged many weeks earlier, but the Massey ban suddenly elevated the debate into a matter of considerable public interest.

The 40 or 50 protesters who turned up, determined to prevent me from speaking, did disrupt the debate to the extent that they forced a re-ordering of the six speeches, and did create so much megaphone-assisted noise that I was unable to speak for several minutes. But in the end I was able to speak, and the 600+ crowd which turned up to the debate required the Debating Society to move the debate to the largest lecture hall in the Business School – and still some of those attending had to be accommodated in a second room. There is little doubt in my mind that the overwhelming majority of those who turned up were strong supporters of free speech.

Third, since all that drama international visitors as different as Nigel Farage, Douglas Murray and Chelsea Manning have all been able to speak in Auckland, though sometimes accompanied by considerable protest.

And fourth, and perhaps the most amazing development of all, the Massey Vice Chancellor advised the Massey Politics Club by email dated 6 September (before the extent of her plotting was revealed by David Farrar on 18 September) that “as you know Massey did not ban Dr Brash”! What? And that the Club is welcome to invite me to speak on the campus in October, an invitation I have accepted.

There was only one slight sting in the Vice Chancellor’s email. The final sentence reads: “Provided all room bookings are handled through the normal process I see no reason why your event should not occur.” It will be interesting to see whether that “normal process” yet provides the Vice Chancellor an opportunity to shut down free speech.

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elocal Franklin
October 2018 (#211)

elocal Franklin – October 2018 (#211)