Councils answer to the people

By Nadia Braddon-Parsons

It’s a bit ironic when a ratepayer is denied use of a public venue, a publicly funded venue. But we’ve seen it happen over and over again. Whether it’s protestors using the ‘thugs veto’, or staff who’ve decided they made a mistake when accepting a booking, bureaucrats and council staff fall into the trap (knowingly or not) of thinking they can assert themselves over others.
Yes, it can be hard to see views you deeply disagree with platformed. And it can be hard to have people disapprove of your decisions. But when you suppress someone else’s speech, you have another problem on your hands, especially in a publicly funded venue.

We’ve seen a pattern of council staff across the country picking and choosing who they allow to speak at publicly funded venues. Recently, it was Marlborough District Libraries not allowing Let Kids Be Kids to book a meeting room on the basis that they didn’t fit, ironically, with their so-called ‘inclusive’ values. (More on this soon.) And, just this week it was Citizens Advice Bureau cancelling The New Zealand Women’s Right Party’s booking at a New Plymouth District Council venue due to public complaints.
But these aren’t new scenarios for us.

A couple of years back, Palmerston North City Council told Speak Up For Women that instead of the event they intended to hold, a debate needed to be had so all sides got their say. This isn't a requirement for holding an event at a publicly funded venue, by the way. We took them to court, and won. And we’ve been able to draw on this ever since when councils have pulled similar moves. (So, Citizens Advice Bureau, you’ve been warned.)

Last year, Taupo District Council cancelled Julian Batchelor’s event ‘Stop co-governance’ over spurious ‘health and safety’ claims, Tauranga City Council cancelled a screening of ‘What is a Women’ (we never did find out on what grounds), and this year, Wellington City Council threatened to cancel the Inflection Point conference on the basis that it didn’t fit with the city’s ‘inclusive’ policies.

You might notice there is a theme to some of the perspectives being cancelled. We’re often accused of being one-sided because of this, but these are the opportunities handed to us. Yet, when we defended the right for Rainbow Storytime events to commence around the country, we got backlash as well. As we always say when people get upset over whose voices we defend, ‘Wait until the shoe is on the other foot’.
Defending free speech would mean nothing if it was only for a select set of views.

You can’t silence someone else and not expect it to come back on you eventually. Free speech is consistent, and we must strive to keep it that way, or it doesn’t work.

Too often, councils find excuses for cancelling views they don’t like, or they bow to pressure to cancel views that others don’t like. (See how it’s a slippery slope?)

But back on Marlborough District Council – they came through. We threatened legal action, but didn’t have to take it. Not only did the council agree to write a public apology to Let Kids Be Kids and say yes to us holding a training session for their staff on upholding ratepayers’ rights, they’ve also agreed to amend their unlawful, discriminatory policy. Watch this space.

They saw our past legal wins and knew they didn’t stand a chance.

Now, we await a response from Citizens Advice Bureau. We’ve warned them that if they don’t honour their commitment to The New Zealand Women’s Rights Party’s booking, we will consider legal action.
We’ve contributed significantly to this area in case law already, but clearly there is still work to be done.

Our current law gives too much room in the first place for manipulation and making exaggerated claims in order to suppress certain views. We need to get the word out that council staff, like librarians and publicly funded venue managers, are not the thought or speech police. They do not, and should not, have the authority to pick and choose who’s platformed. This is not a fight we should keep coming up against.

That’s why we drafted the Protection of the Freedom of Expression Bill, along with former district court judge Dr. David Harvey, to ensure all Kiwis have access to publicly funded venues without spurious ‘health and safety’ claims being weaponised to silence them. We’re proud that our drafted legislation was recently picked up by New Zealand First as a Member’s Bill, and we’re convinced more than ever, that the Bill is the right next step to see free speech upheld in our publicly funded venues.

If it weren’t for the Free Speech Union, cancellations and refused bookings would be swept under the rug. But councils are on notice. We won’t back down.

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  • Nadia Braddon-Parsons
    published this page in Blog 2024-06-26 16:49:17 +1200

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