Free Speech Union Council Position Paper: Free Speech and COVID-19 Response Restrictions
The New Zealand Free Speech Union is a registered trade union with a mission to fight for, protect, and expand New Zealander’ rights to freedom of speech. Even in a severe health crisis we must resist pressure and moves to suppress dissenting views. That is not only because of the terrible precedent it will set. Society will always face fears and claims that unpopular or minority views are ‘dangerous’ to unity and common endeavour.
We insist on preservation of free speech because it is most likely to protect the community trust in its leaders that will be essential if vaccination targets and other Covid measures are to work.
Freedom of speech is not just the right of the minority to talk. Perhaps even more importantly it is our freedom to know, to ask, to challenge, and to test orthodoxy and consensus. It is our reassurance that our leaders will know they are at risk of exposure if they are wrong, or lying to us, Again and again, even within the short period of the Covid crisis, time has shown that ‘the authorities’ have been wrong, sometimes grievously so. But our right to freedom of speech mean that most of us can be confident that if it was not mostly by mistake, or well-intentioned wishful thinking, we will sooner or later know the truth.
A society that abandons the right and the habit of permitting challenges to the claims of the powerful is a society bound to have escalating mistrust between the governed, and those who wield the powers to suppress information. Both our liberties and community cooperation are best served over the long run when elites know they cannot impose agreement, and must instead continue with the endless patient provision of facts and truth and counter-argument.
That is not costless. The freedom to dispute and to disagree can be expensive. It can even “kill” some who are misled. But there is nothing in the history of our civilisation to tell us that fewer will eventually be killed by suppression of free speech, than by contesting falsehood with truth.
There are aspects of COVID-19 response restrictions which relate to our work, but many do not.
The Council affirms the role free speech plays as the bedrock of almost all civil liberties, but they are not one and the same. We confine ourselves to protection of free speech rights. There will be intense argument over whether restrictions imposed to to respond to COVID-19 infringe on civil liberties, and if so, whether the restrictions are justified under the balancing of interests to which many civil liberties are subjected. We will not engage in those debates.
People will try to wrangle freedom of speech questions into civil liberty disputes partly because there are so few situations where that foundational freedom can be subordinated to competing purposes. The Free Speech Union will resist being drawn in into such cases unless we can clearly advocate and educate on issues explicitly related to speech. For example, on questions such as vaccine mandates for employees, the Free Speech Union will not engage, unless and to the extent the measure is clearly intended primarily as a gag, not a protection for the employer’s business and other employees. And for a business or occupation where the proper purposes of the employment require public and private consistency of position, there may be legitimate obligations that enable the employer to insist on the employee avoiding contradiction.
On issues such as a vaccine passport for international travel, again, it is not the role of the Free Speech Union to deliberate or advocate. However, if an employee faces disciplinary action in their workplace due to speech related to vaccine mandates or passports and it does not prejudice the purposes of their employment, we will stand in defence of such speech. Regardless of an individual's vaccination status or stance, we will fight for their right to state their views.
Free speech must be respected, even in the face of scientific consensus.
Though the Free Speech Union does not take a position on a matter outside its mission, for the record, every member of its Council favours efforts to vaccinate as many Kiwis as possible. None of us share the views often attributed to “anti-vaxxers”.
That makes it easy for us to understand those who would reach for coercive suppression of dissent on that effort. However, we believe that history, even very recent history, gives a clear warning that even if it were not a disastrous precedent, it would also be an own goal. We think that much of the current vaccine skepticism in NZ might be attributable to the hostility shown by our institutions to any expression of views thought to be disloyal to the ‘team of 5 million”.
The official advice in NZ was against mask wearing for many months after it was prompted by practice in Asian. Then we made it mandatory. More examples exist than space would allow to recite scientific orthodoxies found to be diametrically wrong, such as the decades long fight against the malignant effects of fats in butter, without reference to the negative effects of sugar. In many cases the settled beliefs of scientists were proven wrong by brave and unpopular individuals, properly applying the scientific method. Frequently they had to popularise their work outside the scientific ‘community’. This method only operates effectively where free speech is protected.
Science needs free speech. It could not and did not emerge where the pious could enforce their views on what would be dangerous to social cohesion. Attempts to suppress dissent among professionals compromises science.
Tolerance, not respect, is the essence of free speech.
As dangerous as misinformation may be, censorship and an unwillingness to engage in debate and discussion also brings with it huge risks. Put simply, censorship doesn’t work. It more often draws sympathetic attention to the ideas it seeks to suppress. If suspicion of power is at the root of a conspiracy theories, shutting down speech on a topic so that only a government’s narrative is permissible is fertiliser for mistrust.
As impatient as we may be during a crisis, the price of staying an open society is being ready and willing to challenge ill-informed positions with better information. The relative few on the fringe will be bolstered by suppression, viewing it as validating their mission. Rather than shielding a poor idea (or a good idea) from scrutiny with censorship, a citizenship responsibility is to endure expression of ideas we detest, because that is part of the golden rule. To be sure of being free to express our own views, and to find out what others think, we need a shared and universal upholding of the right to express wrong views; and the right, to challenge them.
We need the humility to remember the possibility that any of us may be wrong, even in our most fervent beliefs but through the debate and counter-debate enabled by free speech, truth will out.