We've had a number of enquiries over recent weeks about events involving controversial YouTuber Lee Williams (no relation) – who first came to our attention after media reported on apparent "white supremacist statements" and a campaign by the Twitter "community" to have Mr Williams sacked and more.
I saw a few minutes of a clip in which he mocks one of the Maori Party Co-leaders. I personally found it unsophisticated and offensive, but free speech advocacy will always mean defending views you yourself may find objectionable. I would’ve appreciated the opportunity to view more of Mr. Williams material but, as many of you are aware, YouTube has removed his videos.
Our Union was also contacted by Mr Williams some weeks ago via Facebook. I went back and asked some questions. That is standard. We need to assess the risk of being blindsided with properly unlawful expression. The response I got was a link to another video (long, and not related to the questions I was asking). We waited for answers. We do not consider going into bat for someone’s rights without trying to know the low-water mark of what will be disclosed in response. Those we assist have an obligation to help us protect and strengthen the Union’s reputation.
So, any further action couldn’t progress. If we had been properly satisfied, we would’ve most likely partnered Mr Williams with an employment lawyer. But nevertheless, I was shocked to subsequently learn that Westpac had apparently revoked Lee Williams' bank accounts (and will refuse to provide any banking services whatsoever from the end of the month) because Mr Williams was giving his account details out so that people can fund his defence.
This development is of serious concern to the Free Speech Union for two major reasons.
Even if Mr Williams was deservedly as unpopular as his opponent’s paint, it is deeply unsettling that a foreign bank feels entitled to withdraw services on the basis of an online campaign to, effectively, ruin this man's life because of his political opinions. The least the bank might want to do is respect NZ law which forbids discrimination in the provision of services, on the basis of political opinion. If we were to mount no challenge to this, it could set a seriously worrying precedent.
It's also a potential recipe for disaster. If Mr Williams really is 'far right', a conspiracy theorist, or at risk of ‘acting out’ inspired by an extreme ideology (as the Twitter mob claims), what better way to send someone over the edge than by removing him from the internet, culling his job, and now even his access to banking services? The behaviour of the mob in this case could very well be creating a security threat. If we allow them to get into the habit of this style of harassment, we may end up seeing tragedy.
So, we decided to act. I was asked to prepare a letter to Westpac asking for clarification, but our recent support for ‘Speak Up for Women’ meant that the letter sat on my desk for a few weeks in draft form. But it is now sent. In my emailed cover note to CEO Simon Power, I gave the bank a week for a response before we would make a public comment (over and above to our supporters, on this website) or speak to the media about Westpac's behaviour.
In defending free speech, we are never defending individuals but arguably the central liberal principle. I shared my own views on Mr Williams material, but ultimately my personal views are immaterial to the defence of free speech. If activists have the power to close their political opponents' bank accounts and prevent them from supporting themselves, this is a development that will have disastrous consequences for this country. After mounting a successful "campaign", who will they have their sights on tomorrow?
Obviously, we need more facts from Westpac, and should have them soon. When we do, we will report back to you. If we are confident the closing of these accounts is discriminatory, we will fight it for the benefit of all New Zealanders.
Update: A supporter has flagged this piece of PR put out by Westpac: Westpac offers bank accounts to help newly-released prisoners re-integrate into society. So Westpac are actively helping (and rightly so) convicted criminals reintegrate into society yet are doing the opposite for Lee Williams who is guilty of saying stupid things.