This is bad for free speech

There have been overreactions to perceived threats or possible unsavoury speech, particularly from Massey University, but there have also been some concerning reactions.

Free Speech Coalition raising funds for legal action against Massey VC

The Free Speech Coalition has resolved that, contingent on raising sufficient funds, it will be issuing legal proceedings against the Vice-Chancellor of Massey University.

Free Speech Coalition member Melissa Derby says, “Massey University’s action in barring Don Brash raises very similar legal and ethical issues as Auckland Council’s ban on Lauren Southern and Stefan Molyneux from Council-owned venues. In both bases, an authority has used threats of disruptive protest as an excuse to shut down contentious speech. This is the thug’s veto in action.”

“Vice-Chancellor Jan Thomas’ ‘security concerns’ appear to be a ruse to obscure her real motivation – her personal distaste for Don Brash’s opposition to Maori wards on councils, a view she describes as ‘dangerously close to hate speech’, in addition to his support of the speech rights of the recent Canadian visitors.”

“This is a disgraceful breach of the University’s own charter and mission to “promote free and rational inquiry”, and sets a dangerously low bar for ‘hate speech’.”

There has been plenty of speech condemning Massey’s action. Surely that is sufficient in addressing a free speech issue.

Legal proceedings would be an extreme reaction, and I don’t see how it will enhance free speech. It could easily do the opposite, with councils and universities limiting opportunities to speak to avoid legal actions and expenses – it would be easier to just not allow events that could create controversy.

Don Brash and political lobbyists and activists are involved in the Free Speech Coalition, which has raised suspicions about their motivation.

The idea isn’t new. From December 2007:  Democracy Attacks Back

The Free Speech Coalition has launched a billboard campaign today against the parties which voted for the Electoral Finance Act.

“The Electoral Finance Act was correctly labeled by the New Zealand Herald as an “Attack on Democracy” so we think it is fitting that Democracy should attack back.” Said spokesperson David Farrar

Three billboards are initially going up. One in Auckland targeting Helen Clark, one in Tauranga for Winston Peters and one in Wellington for Peter Dunne. They are a clear statement that we regard their legislation as anti-democratic and unconstitutional. MPs are there to serve the public, not to silence the public.

Labelled David Farrar’s billboard disaster:

David Farrar’s campaign is supported by dozens of donors, including some heave hitters like former national leader Don Brash…

Farrar was not initially involved this time, but he is now on board:  Free Speech Coalition here to stay

I was busy enough as it was. I have a 20 month old boy to co-parent. I have a polling company to run. A (taxpayers) union to govern. A blog which needs five to ten articles a day plus I am already involved in three campaigns on topical issues. More than enough.

So when the  Coalition was formed around Phil Goff’s stupidity, I didn’t join. Hell, I didn’t even donate. I blogged a couple of articles in support, but was really happy to leave this fight to others.

But having the Massey Vice-Chancellor ban a former leader of the National Party (and one of my former employers) from speaking on campus has shown this issue is too important to leave to others. So I have joined the , and urge others to do the same.

I support the legal action as it should result in a good precedent. But I think we need more than this. I plan to propose to the Free Speech Coalition (they may agree or disagree) that the FSC launches a Boycott Massey Campaign.

This includes some suggestions that concern me.

3. Target secondary school students by urging them not to study at Massey…

4. Target their donors. The Massey University Foundation has members such as Tony Ryall and John Luxton. See if they will suspend involvement until the ban is lifted as surely they can’t in good conscience fundraise for a university that bans one of their former leaders. Contact the major donors listed…and ask them to refuse to give further until the ban is lifted.

5. Target the rating agencies. Write to QS World Uni Rankings, Top Universities and the Times Higher Education Rankings and inform them of what Massey has done.

This is going much further than a contest of speech. Farrar is suggesting that Massey be attacked financially and educationally.

I have serious concerns about enrolment and financial threats. This is going much further than a debate in free speech. This sort of approach, including threats against businesses, has been tried before, and I think it’s a slippery slope.

It’s a bit ironic when a ‘free speech’ coalition becomes focussed on financial costs.

Whale Oil:  FSC vs Massey

Considering the Coalition raised $50,000 in just 24 hours for its action against Phil Goff, members of the University Council ought to be nervous. Perhaps they could cut a deal – sack the VC in exchange for avoiding legal action.

Pressure to have people sacked is another insidious slippery slope. Demands that politicians be sacked are common and usually unjustified overreactions. Demands and pressure to ask university employees or any employees involved in speech debates is abhorrent to me.

Escalating debates over free speech to legal and livelihood threats is worse than threats to opportunities to speak, which are just words.

 

Free speech papers filed in Auckland court

The Free Speech Coalition was formed after Auckland mayor Phil Goff said he wouldn’t allow two right wing Canadians to speak at any council owned venue, and Auckland Live cancelled their booking. $50 thousand was raised, and now papers have been filed in court.


The Free Speech Coalition has now filed proceedings against Mayor Goff and Auckland Council under the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act.

This came after the Coalition presented the Mayor with an open lettersuggesting he avoid the cost of litigation by reopening discussions with the promoters of the event in question.

The open letter outlined:
• The Council declined to discuss security concerns with organisers or Police prior to Phil Goff’s tweet.
• There was no time pressure justification for the Council’s sudden, uninformed decision.
• So far no privately-owned venues in Auckland have been found to be available or suitable in such a short time frame.
• In Australia, all but one of the venues hosting the speakers are owned by local councils or state government. There is no reason for Auckland to be an outlier.
• The Council has left the Coalition with no other option but to seek urgent judicial relief.
The Coalitions gets the impression the Mayor is eager for the Police to say they can’t uphold their duty to keep the piece and protect free speech – a sad contrast with Australia that we never expected.

Coalition member Melissa Derby says, “The Council’s arbitrary and uninformed decision making process suggests bias, prejudgment, and indifference to the fundamental freedoms outlined in the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act. It’s regrettable to see the Mayor digging his heels in when we have given him every opportunity to reconsider and avoid litigation costs.”

David Cumin, a member of the Coalition and also a plaintiff in the proceedings, says, “Despite his earlier tweets, Mr Goff now claims it wasn’t about banning the speakers because of their political views, but about safety. What he risks is delivering a ‘heckler’s veto’, where potential protesters get to decide who Aucklanders can hear from or associate with.”

“This action is to ensure that politicians and officials aren’t allowed to discriminate against views they dislike when it comes to ratepayer-funded venues, regardless of how broadly ‘unacceptable’ the views might be.”

The plaintiffs in this action are:
• Axiomatic Media – the promoters of the Southern/Molyneux event.
• Malcolm Bruce Moncrief-Spittle – a bookseller living in Dunedin.
• David Cumin – an Auckland ratepayer and member of the Free Speech Coalition.

The defendants are:
• Regional Facilities Auckland (Auckland Live)
• Auckland Council
• Mayor Phil Goff

The statement of claim and application for urgency and interim orders are available here and here.


There is plenty of counter ammunition being found in relation to members of the Coalition having dubious free speech positions in the past, but that shouoldn’t preclude them for championing principles of free speech now.

There is an interesting legal point here – whether a democratic local body should choose who can’t use public facilities based on opinions on what might be said in the future.

It can also be argued that it’s a waste of money, especially council money, taking it to court, but legal action is an option in our relatively free society, so that’s a choice open to whoever wants to do it – at risk of costs being awarded against them if they fail.