After eight months of waiting, today we received the decision from the Court of Appeal on our court action against Auckland Council that started the Free Speech Coalition back in 2018 (a special podcast episode summarising the decision is here).
You’ll remember that it began when the Mayor claimed on radio that he had banned two controversial Canadian speakers from using public meeting venues (Council controlled) because they were “divisive”.
When we got the Council evidence it said that the Mayor did not have power to make that decision because Auckland Council venues were controlled by a separate Trust, and he had not made the decision. The evidence said that instead the hall bookings were cancelled because of protestor threats raising health and safety fears.
We continued the case because it was important for Mayors to be told that they can’t discriminate on political grounds in using their powers to control ratepayer assets, and that Councils can’t hide from their obligations to protect freedom of speech by appointing other bodies to manage those assets. But we were mainly concerned to get a clear message from the courts that public bodies would have a high threshold to cross before they allowed the “thugs’ veto” to trump freedom of speech.
- on the point that Bill of Rights Act obligations (including freedom of speech) apply to councils and their subsidiaries that control public venues. In other words, Councils can’t hide behind “independent” managers – the Court of Appeal overruled the High Court on this point;
- in a terse reversal of the lower court’s incomprehensible ruling that we were not bringing a case of public interest and importance;
- in a similarly brusque dismissal of the lower court’s decision that our representative plaintiffs were on a personal crusade and did not have standing to bring the case;
- in statements about the importance of free speech and obligations not to assert health and safety fears without proper foundation;
- in getting the costs award against us cut by 70%, because of the public interest nature of our case. This is an unusually large discount. We could say it suggests we have been upheld 70% and lost as to 30% but that is not necessarily the way these things are calculated.
- on our key argument that the cancellation decision should have been made after much more investigation of ways to diminish the protestor threats to health and safety. The Court of Appeal says the speaking tour organisers were not upfront enough with the venue managers about the protest risks. We think this is a shame. In other contexts victim blaming is called out, but not this time;
- in that the Court fails to give a clear steer on just how important it is to ensure that Thugs’ Veto does not win. The judges have weaved around the issue, saying we do not have US-style law, and citing similar Canadian evasions where thugs have defeated free speech. They say our judges will have to develop law that suits New Zealand, but don’t take the opportunity to do so;
- in that the Court treated our withdrawal of our lawsuit against the Mayor as if it made his false claim immaterial. We hoped that the Court would mention the context of the case, that it came about when the Mayor claimed publicly that he’d banned the speakers from Council venues. As it turned out he was lying but the Court just didn’t go on to say directly that if his claim had been true, it would have been unlawful. We think that conclusion underlies the decision, but it would have been better to have it stated clearly.
On balance, we are satisfied to have secured a much-improved judgement. But the murkier parts of the decision, and our experience before the High Court show how vulnerable human rights can be in New Zealand.
The court displayed none of the passionate commitment to defending fundamental rights it has shown in other ‘constitutional’ cases. Section 5 of our Bill of Rights gives a wide scope for courts to find that rights are limited according to the political inclinations of judges from time to time. Here was a perfect opportunity for the bench to stand on the side of free speech - but they've ducked for cover.
For example, while lawyers will read this decision and tell councils that they must be careful to give due regard to freedom of expression in hiring venues, and that politicians can't stop people they don't like from using public facilities, the Court chose not to state it that simply. The rejection of Mr Goff's behaviour should been clear, not just implied.
We don’t really have a “bill of rights” so much as a “bill of reasonable rights” - and what is “reasonable” might be anyone’s guess. How section 5 is used when the thug’s veto is next on trial may show whether it is just a cloak for leaving unpopular or minority views unprotected.
Our work from here: stepping up the fight for free speech
If this case shows anything it is that we must make free speech fashionable again. Anticipating this decision, behind the scenes we've been putting huge hours into the next step of defending, and improving, free speech in New Zealand. We can't wait to tell you about it very soon.
Thank you for your support.