FREE SPEECH: HOW FREE SHOULD IT REALLY BE?
A speech prepared for delivery at Massey University, 5 May 2022
Ladies and gentlemen
This was supposed to be the third speech in a series of speeches at New Zealand universities organised by the Free Speech Union. The second was a speech given last Thursday by well-known journalist and long-term editor of the Dominion newspaper Karl du Fresne, at Victoria University of Wellington. The first was supposed to have been at AUT in Auckland earlier last week.
But in one of life’s great ironies, AUT refused to allow the speech to take place on its campus – I say “ironies” because it was AUT History professor, Paul Moon, who took the initiative a few years ago to promote a strongly-worded statement in favour of free speech, and persuaded a wide range of well-known New Zealanders to put their names to it – New Zealanders as different as Dame Tariana Turia, Sir Geoffrey Palmer, Sir Bob Jones and Don Brash.
Another irony is that I have been allowed – or at time of drafting this speech I think I’ve been allowed – to talk about free speech at this Massey campus. As many of you will know, I think I was the first person to be abruptly de-platformed by a New Zealand university when your Vice Chancellor, Jan Thomas, announced with just one day’s notice that I would not be allowed to give a speech which I had been invited to give by the University’s Politics Club. It was to have been about my time as Leader of the National Party, obviously a very dangerous and threatening subject!
What triggered the formation of the Free Speech Union in 2018 (or rather, its predecessor the Free Speech Coalition) was the attempt by Phil Goff, the mayor of Auckland, to ban two Canadian speakers from speaking in that city. He made the ban – or purported to – on the grounds that the speakers promoted extreme right-wing views, and he decided that Aucklanders should not be exposed to such views.
I say “purported” to ban the Canadians: it turned out when the decision was challenged that he actually had no authority to prevent the Canadians from speaking, even in city-owned facilities. That power lay with Regional Facilities Auckland, the Auckland City-owned entity which operates various halls and theatres around the city. They banned the Canadians on so-called “security grounds”.
It was very soon after this decision that Jan Thomas wrote an article in the New Zealand Herald extolling the importance of free speech:
“The right to speak freely is a bedrock principle of democratic society. This includes the right to hold opinions and express one’s views without fear and the ability to freely communicate one’s ideas. History is littered with examples of tyrants who have sought to stymie this freedom of expression and, conversely, reveals the tragedy of those whose voices have been silenced under such oppression.”
But in the article she made a clear distinction between free speech, which she claimed to allow, and “hate speech”, which she clearly deplored – and she claimed “hate speech” was exemplified by the views expressed by Hobson’s Pledge, of which I was then (indeed still am) one of the two spokespeople.
And on 7 August 2018, the day before I was due to speak here, she issued a 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 [I and my supporters] espoused in relation to Maori wards on councils were 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 the ban 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.
Universities should be bastions of free speech. The petition which Paul Moon launched more than a year prior to my being banned at this university made some very basic points:
“Freedom of speech underpins our way of life in New Zealand as a liberal democracy. It enables religious observance, individual development, societal change, science, reason and progress in all spheres of life. In particular, the free exchange of ideas is a cornerstone of academe…
“Individuals, not any institution or group, should make their own judgments about ideas and should express these judgments not by seeking to suppress speech, but by openly and vigorously contesting the ideas they oppose, without discrimination or intimidation.
“We must ensure that our higher learning establishments are places where intellectual rigour prevails over emotional blackmail and where academic freedom, built on free expression, is maintained and protected. We must fight for each other’s right to express opinions, even if we do not agree with them.”
Voltaire’s famous line comes to mind: “I disapprove of what you say, but will defend to the death your right to say it.”
What is alarming is how far New Zealand universities seem to have fallen short of that standard in recent years. The Free Speech Union commissioned Curia Market Research to send a questionnaire to just about every academic in the country, with respondents asked to rank, on a scale of one to 10, how free they feel to exercise academic freedom in various ways, with 10 being a perception of being totally free.
The good news is that most academics still feel free to engage in research of their choice and to criticize the Government.
The bad news, and it is very bad news, is that nearly half of those who replied to the survey rated their freedom to debate or discuss issues related to the Treaty of Waitangi, or sex and gender, at five or lower.
The problem was well illustrated by the reaction to the famous – or infamous, depending on your point of view – letter to the Listener by the seven professors from the University of Auckland, a letter in which they asserted that although indigenous knowledge may play some role in the preservation of local practices and policy, “it falls far short of what can be defined as science itself”.
The Vice Chancellor of the University of Auckland felt the need to apologise to university staff; the Royal Society initiated action to expel three of the seven who were members of the Society; and some 2,000 academic staff from around the country signed a petition deploring the letter. Only when eminent international scientists like Richard Dawkins climbed in and pointed out that the seven professors were only stating what was almost universally accepted by scientists around the world did the Royal Society back off, though not before making New Zealand the laughing stock of scientists everywhere.
In theory, free speech is one of those fundamental rights which is protected in the Bill of Rights Act 1990. Section 14 of that Act provides that “everyone has the right to freedom of expression, including the freedom to seek, receive, and impart information and opinions of any kind in any form.”
That sounds pretty unambiguous. But that piece of law is qualified by another, namely Section 61 of the Human Rights Act of 1993, which states:
“It shall be unlawful for any person –
(a) To publish or distribute written matter which is threatening, abusive, or insulting, or to broadcast by means of radio or television or other electronic communication words which are threatening, abusive, or insulting; or
(b) To use in any public place…., or within the hearing of persons in any such public place, or at any meeting to which the public are invited or have access, words which are threatening, abusive or insulting.”
By international standards, New Zealand has traditionally stacked up reasonably well. Certainly there are plenty of countries where speaking out of turn, by criticising the government or speaking in a disrespectful way of the nationally-approved deity can get you imprisoned or killed. Even suggesting that Muslims are free to vote for a non-Muslim as Governor of Jakarta can get you jailed in Indonesia, as the former Governor of Jakarta discovered to his cost.
In the United States, where free speech is specifically protected by the First Amendment to the Constitution, there have been a depressing number of cases where speakers have been de-platformed for views which students and some staff regard as unfashionable.
A few years ago, there was the celebrated case when Charles Murray was unable to speak at Middlebury College, with the female host of his lecture suffering injury as she tried to extract him from the melee of rowdy students. And Charles Murray’s offence? Though he is an anti-Trump Republican, and the author of such notable works as Human Accomplishment and Coming Apart, he is still blamed for what is seen as an unforgivable sin, namely suggesting in a book he co-wrote with Richard Herrnstein more than 20 years ago that some races might be slightly brighter, on average, than other races.
At about the same time, Berkeley’s KPFA Radio cancelled a planned interview with Richard Dawkins. The interview had been planned to discuss Dawkins’ book The Selfish Gene, which had been named the most influential science book of all time by the Royal Society a week earlier. The interview was cancelled because of Dawkins’ alleged attacks on Islam – which Dawkins strenuously denied.
Late last year, Dr Dorian Abbot, an associate professor of geophysical sciences at the University of Chicago, was invited to give a lecture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Writing in the Wall Street Journal in October, he explained that
“The lecture was canceled because I have openly advocated moral and philosophical views that are unpopular on university campuses. I believe that every individual should be treated as an individual worthy of dignity and respect. In an academic context that means evaluating people for positions based on their individual qualities, not on membership in favored or disfavored groups. It also means allowing them to present their ideas and perspectives freely, even when we disagree with them….”
It is surely a sad indictment on the US university scene that a university like MIT would cancel a lecture because the guest espoused views which, once upon a time, would have been regarded as absolutely unassailable.
In an attempt to push back against this cancel culture, the University of Chicago issued a very strong statement in 2014 and, quoting the university’s President, Hanna Holborn Gray, stated “education should not be intended to make people comfortable, it is meant to make them think. Universities should be expected to provide the conditions within which hard thought, and therefore strong disagreement, independent judgement, and the questioning of stubborn assumptions, can flourish in an environment of the greatest freedom.”
That is surely a standard to which our own universities should aspire.
As worrying as the trend in our universities is, the trend in our media is in many ways at least as troubling.
We’ve seen at least one of our main newspaper chains decline to carry any views which question the official narrative on the human influence on global warming, and it is almost impossible to read anything about the far-reaching constitutional changes which this Government is rushing through Parliament. As a result, most New Zealanders remain unaware that the Government is already implementing the radical recommendations of He Puapua.
When Judith Collins, then the Leader of the National Party, spoke about this document at National Party regional conferences last year, she was denounced as racist for daring to question the recommendations of that report, even though those recommendations, if implemented, would involve a complete re-write of the New Zealand constitution.
Far from its being racist to attack He Puapua, it is the He Puapua report itself which is racist. The Government makes no secret of the fact that it has consulted extensively on that document – but so far only with carefully selected Maori groups – leaving the great majority of the population completely in the dark about their ultimate intentions.
But the Government has already passed legislation under urgency designed to prevent ratepayers from expressing a view on the creation of Maori wards; is passing legislation which will enable Ngai Tahu to appoint voting members to the council of Environment Canterbury; is passing legislation which will split the entire health system into two, one for Maori New Zealanders and the other for all other New Zealanders; may yet pass legislation to give those on the Maori roll a disproportionate influence in voting for Rotorua councillors; is hell-bent on passing legislation against very strong opposition to hand over the country’s entire water infrastructure to boards on which tribes will have half of the votes; and much more.
What is alarming is that most New Zealanders remain completely unaware of these developments. Why? At least in part because the Government has handed out tens of millions of dollars to those media willing to sign up, quite literally, to promoting the Government’s interpretation of the Treaty of Waitangi as a partnership. Not willing to sign up to that interpretation? Then no Government cash. This is the stuff of petty dictatorships and should be of grave concern to all New Zealanders. But precisely because getting that Government cash requires total acquiescence to the Government’s interpretation of the Treaty, we haven’t seen the media push back on the Government’s radical agenda.
I have sensed that the New Zealand Herald may be getting slightly bolder. Recently they carried an article describing the co-governance agenda, and a week or two earlier an article by Shane Jones attacking co-governance. They have given David Seymour a little coverage of his views on this issue.
But it’s little more than a year ago that Dr Michael Bassett was banned from the Herald. Dr Bassett – a man who had a distinguished career in Parliament, who is a noted historian, and who served for 10 years on the Waitangi Tribunal – had written an article which highlighted some of the benefits which Europeans had brought to New Zealand in the first half of the 19th century, not least in putting an end to cannibalism and the appalling bloodshed which was a consequence of the Musket Wars. The Herald advised him that they wouldn’t be publishing any more of his columns because apparently they “didn’t meet NZME’s standards”.
It will be clear that I place a very high value on free speech.
I agree with George Orwell when he said: “If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.” Or as Elon Musk announced just days ago: “Free speech is the bedrock of a functioning democracy.”
But should there be no limits at all on free speech, beyond the generally accepted prohibition on openly advocating violence against a person or persons?
I have no doubt at all that we should be free to debate a very wide range of issues – what the Treaty of Waitangi really meant, whether transgender women should be allowed to compete in women’s sport, what constraints (if any) should be placed on a woman’s right to an abortion, whether euthanasia should be legal or not, what criteria should apply when determining New Zealand’s immigration policy, and so on.
I also believe we should be free to debate religious beliefs, and free of course to deny the existence of any supernatural Being, whatever called.
A few years ago, there were two speeches which triggered complaints to the Human Rights Commission.
One was by Muslim cleric Shaykh Mohammad Anwar Sahib, at the time the secretary of the Federation of Islamic Associations of New Zealand. In his speech he said that “Jews are using everybody because their protocol is to rule the entire world.” He went on to say that “Jews are the enemy of the Muslim community”, and made offensive remarks about women. Then Ethnic Communities Minister Sam Lotu-Iiga responded quickly, reminding everybody that hate speech is prohibited in New Zealand under Section 61 of the Human Rights Act.
Should that kind of speech be allowed? Given the long and appallingly negative effects of anti-Semitism, for me it’s a line call. But on balance I think I would allow it, as long as I am allowed to argue publicly that people who hold such misogynist and anti-Jewish views should not be allowed to become permanent residents or citizens of New Zealand.
The second speech was by self-proclaimed Bishop Brian Tamaki. Quoting the Book of Leviticus, he stated that the Bible made it clear that gays, sinners and murderers were responsible for the then recent earthquakes. Again, I would allow such speech, as long as I am free to note that the guy is a nutter, and that the Book of Leviticus also bans the eating of meat containing blood and the wearing of any garments made of two types of fibre. No rational person takes such strictures as relevant today.
For me by far the most difficult area for those who believe strongly in free speech is the one created by the ability of social media to promote disinformation on a massive scale, sometimes funded on a large scale by hostile countries.
I think people should be free to choose whether or not to be vaccinated – provided they accept the consequences of their decision – but they should not be free to aggressively promote as factual that Bill Gates has somehow been able to incorporate some kind of tracking mechanism into the vaccine if, as a consequence of that view becoming widespread, a very large number of people refuse to get vaccinated and hundreds of thousands of people die as a result.
I think people should be free to prefer Donald Trump to Joe Biden, but after William Barr, the Attorney General appointed by President Trump, announced there was no basis for over-turning the 2020 election result; and after the US Supreme Court, heavily weighted towards a conservative view of the world, unanimously refused even to hear the case that the election might have been fraudulent, to spread the lie that Trump in fact really did win is incredibly dangerous for the peace and harmony of the United States.
In short, I have a very strong bias in favour of free speech. But I nevertheless believe that there are some limits, and I hope that Elon Musk recognizes them.
5 May 2022