What is ‘free speech’ in a New Zealand context?

There has been a lot spoken and written about free speech in New Zealand lately, sparked by the visit of Canadians Stefan Molyneux and Lauren Southern. Most people seemed to see them as extreme-ish agenda driven attention and money seekers,  with many people supporting their right to speak here but not agreeing with what they said or did much.

The cancellation of a political event at Massey University this week that as going to feature Don Brash was widely (not quite universally) condemned. Brash got far more publicity over that and a at a debate at Auckland University on Thursday than he would otherwise have got.

But what is free speech in New Zealand?

Lizzie Marvelly has a go at explaining (it’s a column worth reading, one of her better ones in a very mixed portfolio) in Why can’t I escape Don Brash?

What has become overwhelmingly clear in the midst of the tide of hysteria and hyperbole is that there are many people who don’t really grasp the true meaning of free speech. Having the freedom of speech just means (with a few exceptions, such as in matters of national security and hate speech) that the state doesn’t have the right to prevent citizens from expressing themselves or punishing them if they do. It can’t throw people in jail for speaking out against the Government, or to prevent them from speaking out.

Free speech doesn’t mean everyone has the right to speak in whatever venue they please. It doesn’t mean that people who disagree with a speaker can’t argue or protest. It doesn’t mean that people can say vile, violent and inflammatory things without fear of prosecution. As the person who wrote to Massey’s Vice Chancellor alluded to, just because we have the right to free speech, it doesn’t mean we won’t face consequences for what we say.

This doesn’t address the issue of a politician like Phil Goff trying to dictate whose views could be expressed at an Auckland Council owned venue. Nor does it address the considerable concerns over Jan Thomas deciding which ex-politicians should be effectively banned from speaking at a Massey University student political society event. But those issue shave been well covered already.

Dr Oliver Hartwich (NZ Initiative): Freely speaking

Since New Zealand just had to discuss the meaning of free speech, perhaps it is worth defining what free speech is. And what it is not.

Absent a written constitution, let us turn to Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights for guidance. It states: “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”

As strong as this sounds, this provision only confers an individual right to hold and express opinions. It compels no one else to share, promote or publish them. And this, more than anything else, is the fundamental misunderstanding in our recent debates.

Again this doesn’t address Goff’s apparent involvement in deciding who could use a venue based on what he thought they might say.

Even Massey University’s banning of Don Brash’s speech is, strictly speaking, not a case of restricting free speech. Within hours of being uninvited, Dr Brash’s manuscript was published on the Herald’s website, and he could explain himself on radio and TV. That is hardly a case of effective censorship. And universities, too, can lawfully determine how their resources are used.

The real scandal of banning Dr Brash lies elsewhere. By uninviting Dr Brash, Massey University has not been true to its own values. Massey’s Charter commits it to promoting “free and rational inquiry”. That is what the very idea of the university is all about.

If universities cannot tolerate dissent and the free exchange of heterodox views, they cease to be universities. It would make them indoctrination camps.

In short: Freedom of speech is important. Not every restriction of expression is objectionable. And universities must remain true to ideals of academic inquiry.

Everyone is free to speak to themselves by their own means. Beyond that there is no guarantee others will listen or will provide a means to speak.

But there is a need for politicians and universities to be impartial and unobstructive when making decisions on who can speak in their domains, and to do that they need to risk erring towards allowing speech. They cannot know what will be said in advance of an event.

here at Your NZ free speech is very important, but not absolute. I need to make decisions to protect this site from legal actions, and I also choose to protect speakers here and targets of opinions from unnecessary abuse and attacks. It’s imperfect but well-intentioned for the good of both speech in general but also of the community here.

Leave a comment


  1. sorethumb

     /  11th August 2018

    Most people seemed to see them as extreme-ish agenda driven attention and money seekers, with many people supporting their right to speak here but not agreeing with what they said or did much.
    Have you heard Noelle McCarthy this morning or followed Public Address (former mediawatch host). Paid for by the taxpayer.

  2. Alan Wilkinson

     /  11th August 2018

    Hartwich is correct that the main issue is not about free speech but about administrators co-opting control of public facilities to serve their own political prejudices.

    A subsidiary issue is media bias in coverage of the above.

  3. Gezza

     /  11th August 2018

    Don Brash. The man has had more reinventions than Madonna. Just when you think he must be about to step over the precipice into the abyss of irrelevance, he surprises you and lands in the news headlines again. … He’s like New Zealand’s favourite ranty old uncle, complete with views of a certain vintage and, seemingly, a desperate need to share them with anyone who will listen.

    Same old Don to me. Looking a bit doddery now, but yep, obviously as pleased as punch to be getting national attention again. Thanks to Jan.

    I’m sure this all sounds very mean-spirited, and I don’t intend for it to be. I’ve met Don Brash, and I have actually enjoyed time in his company. He is personable and courteous. He also holds and voices opinions I wholeheartedly believe are harmful to my people and my culture, and that I find nauseating. They’re the kind of views that, in my opinion, distort history and stoke separatism. And he insists on repeating them, over and over.

    Ok, I agree that he distorts history – well, maybe not so much distorts he just doesn’t think it’s all that important to today – but it is – and he stokes up resentment by non-Maori (mostly white pakeha cultural supremacists) both against the treaty settlements & reconciliation process, & against the resurgence of Maori language & culture.

    But I don’t think he’s promoting separatism – some Maori radicals have & do though. The problem with Don is he promotes the idea we’re all the same, that people who identify as Maori Kiwis should effectively just be browner Pakeha Kiwis. Well, piss off Don. There’s no reason why they should, although there’s also no reason why they shouldn’t have the same perceived benefits & status as Pakeha Kiwis. If that’s what they want. It’s a truism that to get whatever you want you have to do whatever it takes.

    The Waitangi Tribunal has done some good work but there have been some wacky ideas that weren’t originally envisaged & will be contentious as everyone thought we all sort of owned it or it belonged to God or nobody in particular. Like water & airspace. Broadcasting space is fine with me.

    Good topics for debate or just shouting matches?

    I won’t give oxygen here to the other dramatic overstatements that our Canadian visitors brought with them to Godzone, but it is disappointing to see that similarly overblown comments have been adopted by our own self-proclaimed free speech crusaders. Don Brash’s rebuttal to his opponents this week suggested that the “thugs” had been “emboldened”.

    The man who sent the letter to the Vice Chancellor that sparked this entire sorry saga allegedly wrote, “remember in light of their type of ‘Free Speech’ does not come Free of Consequences”. How very thuggish. Terrifying.

    The problem is that a lot of the thugs are shrill young women it seems. So ya can’t punch them up if you’ve a mind to. Which is a good thing. There’s too much punching up of women in some parts of our society. It’s pretty ludicrous to call these sheilas thugs. I did wonder if they should have been ejected from the debate by security or the fuzz but there were a lot more protestors in that hall besides the screamers. And in the end they shut up because the massive crowd of folk – who looked like they were from all sides of the political spectrum & were there to listen – overwhelmingly told them to. The protestors won the debate for Don.

    Why did he mention that Jews were a “successful culture”. Where did that come from? Never heard him say that before. What a shame nobody asked him that because that was just stirring. And he went even further down in my estimation for it.

    Māori and/or the only woman in speaker line-ups, on panels and on media shows, I’m far more concerned about the women and people of colour who are effectively censored by exclusion or tokenism than I am about Don Brash not speaking to a handful of students.

    While Brash could quickly reinstate his freedom of expression by squawking to the media, others aren’t so fortunate. In practice, free speech for people of my culture and gender is more of a luxury than a right.

    Duh? You’ve got a regular column in The Herald & there’s no shortage of opinion pieces from others backing some of yours point of view. I see John Tamihere on Q&A quite frequently. I don’t see enuf intelligent debate about Maori perspectives – or anything, really on mainstream pakeha trivial tv. There’s a range of Maori perpectives. But I also don’t see enuf intelligent debate of Pakeha perspectives on Maori tv (such little as I’ve watched). I dunno how we fix this – we’re moving away from watching it I think – but we still seem to watch the sensationalist news.

    Which begs the question… I wonder whether Don would support my right to free speech if I’d written this column in te reo Māori?

    He’d possibly moan about it but who cares. I think you should. I wouldn’t understand it so I wouldn’t read it. That would be true of most people in NZ. If someone supplied an English translation I would though.

    Don’s right about free speech & I think he win that debate but his gratuitously sleazing the Jewsih race card into it made me realise he’s a shit, really. That’s the thing I’d like him challenged on.

    • Alan Wilkinson

       /  11th August 2018

      The man who sent the letter to the Vice Chancellor that sparked this entire sorry saga allegedly wrote, “remember in light of their type of ‘Free Speech’ does not come Free of Consequences”. How very thuggish. Terrifying

      Except that the man who wrote that was a heavily tattooed Stormtrooper gang leader. Way to lie by omission.

      • Gezza

         /  11th August 2018

        No he wasn’t.

      • Gezza

         /  11th August 2018

        Oh. So now you want to investigate what really happened. Because you cocked it up going off half-cocked like that? It says there that he’s a pussy really. (Mind you, I loathe the gangs too. See my comment on this further below.)

        Ahuriri last week posted a link to the Brash event on Facebook saying: “This guy lol….if you’re up to nothing Wednesday head up to Massey uni PN”

        and someone [i.e. else] commented “take a gun”.

        Ahuriri, who is a Stormtroopers member, believes people automatically take things he says the wrong way because he is in a gang. He said he was all for freedom of speech and Brash could talk about lobby group Hobson’s Pledge if he liked. “I didn’t care if [Brash] was going to talk about it or not,” Ahuriri said. “[The post] was for people to be there and be able to question whatever he was talking about.”

        Bay of Plenty-based Vorn Rossiter was the one who wrote “take a gun” and he told Stuff he didn’t intend to hurt anyone at the event.

        Obviously a fuckwit. But …

        “It’s all been blown out of proportion,” he said. “And whoever’s page I commented on, he knows who I am. “That was said in jest.” Rossiter didn’t agree with Brash’s views and said as long as people weren’t hurting others, they should be able to go about their business, including Brash.

        … he’s in the shit for it now & looks like an idiot.

        Ahuriri is a gang member, but does a lot of community work. He works as a teacher aide and student mentor at Tararua College in Pahīatua and runs a course every six weeks at Manawatū Prison to help rehabilitate prisoners. “You’re giving young gang members and young fellas [in prison] better options. When a lady has a baby you have Plunket around and all these services. “When you get out of prison you get told keep out of the s… and that’s it.”

        He also helps run a clinic for people affected by methamphetamine, with New Zealand “P” Pull, a support group set up by former addicts and he has also helped feed vulnerable people.

        Ahuriri met Brash in Palmerston North earlier this year when Brash was touring the country opposing Māori wards on councils. The two had a civil chat, expressed their points of view and shook hands, Ahuriri said. “Don told me and everybody else exactly what he wanted to say. No-one told him to p… off.”

        My question is – does he dob in the crims in the gangs when he knows who they are & what they’re doing? I would guess not. If you want to help these kids get out of the gang. How are they supposed to work out who’s in charge & what the kaupapa is?

        A police spokesperson said they had not received a complaint about any threats related to the event and were not investigating. “Police have spoken to Massey, but that was after the decision had been made to cancel, so police had no input into that decision.”
        … …
        So the ‘threat’ obviously wasn’t considered credible. Slam dunk Jan. Shut up – your credibility went out the window the minute the police were asked what’s the guts? (Just to finish with a flourish.)

  4. Alan Wilkinson

     /  11th August 2018

    The Herald has published both Simon Wilson’s speech and Brash’s from the debate.

    IMO Wilson’s is turgid misrepresenting cant while Brash’s is largely straight forward common sense.


  1. What is ‘free speech’ in a New Zealand context? — Your NZ – NZ Conservative Coalition

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