Don Brash, Free Speech Phil Goff banned Lauren Southern and Stefan Stefan Molyneux

At the time of writing, it is not clear whether he did that on health and safety grounds – concerned that what the Canadians might say would cause a disturbance of the peace – or whether he did it because what they might say would be seriously repugnant to many Aucklanders, “40% of whom are immigrants”.

WHEN SHOULD FREE SPEECH BE BANNED?

Early in July, the mayor of Auckland Phil Goff banned a couple of Canadians from speaking at a council-owned facility in Auckland.

At the time of writing, it is not clear whether he did that on health and safety grounds – concerned that what the Canadians might say would cause a disturbance of the peace – or whether he did it because what they might say would be seriously repugnant to many Aucklanders, “40% of whom are immigrants”.

I myself heard Mr Goff speaking at a black-tie dinner hosted by Indian Newslink on 9 July, just after the ban was announced, and I certainly got the impression that he had imposed the ban because he believed that the Canadians would say things which would be seriously repugnant to many Aucklanders.

He quoted the famous Nazi-era German pastor Martin Niemoller:

First they came for the communists, and I did not speak out –

Because I was not a communist;

Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out –

Because I was not a trade unionist;

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out –

Because I was not a Jew;

Then they came for me – and there was no one left to speak for me.

Niemoller was one of Hitler’s prisoners from before the war until the war’s end. He has always been one of my heroes – the symbol of resistance to all that was evil in Nazi-era Germany.

I had already agreed to lend my name to a campaign to raise funds to challenge Phil Goff’s decision in court, not because I wanted to defend anything which the two Canadians were likely to say – I knew almost nothing of their views, beyond their description as “Alt-Right” – but rather because to me the right to express one’s opinions strongly and without obstruction by the state is one of our most important rights.

Take away that right, and many other rights are in jeopardy.

Phil Goff was not trying to ban the two Canadians from coming to New Zealand – he has no legal power to do that – and nor was he trying to stop them speaking in Auckland. He has no legal right to do that either. But he was intent on stopping them speaking in facilities paid for by ratepayers of various political persuasions because of their reported political views, and I felt that that was a dangerous precedent.

I have been accused of hypocrisy. Aren’t you the guy who has criticized Radio New Zealand for their use of te reo Maori in news bulletins? Yes I have done that. There is no legal restriction on RNZ using te reo Maori in their bulletins, and nor should there be. I was simply arguing that if RNZ wants to use taxpayer funds to broadcast news, they should not be doing so in a language which at least 95% of their listeners do not understand. Taxpayers provide substantial funding to support Maori-language broadcasting, and I support that.

But aren’t you the same guy who took out an injunction to prevent the publication of Nicky Hager’s book The Hollow Men back in 2006? How is that consistent with your current vehement defence of free speech? Yes, I am that guy, but when the injunction was taken out I understood that the book was to be based on email traffic between members of the public and me as Leader of the Opposition. I felt then, and still feel, that members of the public are entitled to believe that their private emails to political leaders will remain private and confidential.

When I discovered that the book was not based on such emails from members of the public but rather on emails between members of my staff, my political colleagues and me, I lifted the injunction – even though it was very clear from looking at the book subsequently that most of the material in it had been obtained in ways which were certainly grossly inappropriate, if not illegal.

There are and should be some limits on free speech. Nobody defends your right to shout “Fire” in a crowded theatre. Nobody defends your right to urge violence towards individuals, groups of individuals, or property.

But short of those limits, I can’t think of too many other restrictions on free speech I would want to support. We should be free to debate what the Treaty of Waitangi said; what impact human activity is having on the global climate, and how we should mitigate that; whether there should continue to be separate Maori electorates (even more than 30 years after the Royal Commission on the Electoral System recommended they be scrapped if MMP were adopted); what level of immigration we should be comfortable with; and lots of other highly contentious but vitally important issues.

Is this just a right-wing concern? Absolutely not. I have no idea where most of the ten or so others who put their names to this legal action stand on the political spectrum, but I feel fairly confident that Chris Trotter at least is well to the left of me politically. Courageously, he was not only willing to put his name to the press release but also to be one of the two spokespeople for the campaign.

In that first press release announcing the campaign, he commented that:

We accept the case for blocking genuine hate speech, such as incitement to violence or other illegal activity. But curbing free debate under threat of disruption is neither desirable nor acceptable in a free and democratic society. Truth is not afraid of trigger-words. Truth does not need a safe place. Truth is not a snowflake. Truth can take the heat and most certainly should not be forced to vacate the kitchen in the face of a couple of Alt-Right populists and a politically-correct Mayor.”

Amen to that.

Don Brash

July 2018