I have had political antennae since my early teens. It was years before I read anything about the Enlightenment but early on it resonated with me that one of life’s most basic rights was saying what you thought.
Philosophical justifications like the Marketplace of Ideas were decades away for me, but life threw me in with close friends who had diverse politics and enjoyed arguing. The 1981 Springbok tour was an early influence and I was largely at odds with my student peers for preferring the libertarian view that the Rugby Union could host whoever it liked. I made it as far as the New Zealand University debating team at one point when we were wheeled around High Schools doing performance debating for secondary students. It was a stimulating phase of life but I do not recall at any point doubting that expressing different opinions was the way the world worked.
We all know things are now more complex. The concept of personal liberty has been developed to the point that many seriously believe they have the right to not be offended, and the right to define offence as anything they do not agree with. For some years I have absorbed the message from overseas media – phone apps are wonderful things – that the Northern hemisphere is well down the path of groupthink, and personal bravery is now called for to say what would once have been routine.
For me, the contagion reached these shores when the Mayor of Auckland took it on himself in 2018 to bar two speakers from council venues because of their controversial views on immigration. The reverberations of that episode are still wending their way through the justice system, but we are on notice. The ground has shifted. Settled principles of free speech can no longer be relied on.
In a short time, we have arrived at the point where certain points of view, particularly once touching on race and gender, can’t be expressed, no matter how reasonable or well founded.
Recently a friend posted a piece on early Maori history that looked interesting and deleted it before I could read it. When I asked why she told me the abuse wasn’t worth it. Have we really come to this? Yes, and it goes well beyond online abuse. You can now lose your job or professional registration for expressing a reasonable and informed opinion. Highly regarded organisations are not immune. Universities were early casualties but more recently The Royal Society – a bulwark of the science community - ripped itself apart publicly rather than stand up for its own core principles.
The parallels with dark periods in recent histories, like McCarthyism in the 1950s, and the totalitarian regimes of the 1930s, are glaring. The worthy citizens of those eras also thought they were progressive and enlightened. They too thought their insights were so vital that other opinions should permanently give way to them, and eventually common decency as well. Universities, professional bodies and trade unions cooperated. We are well embarked on the same journey and it didn’t end well last time.
I have been a member of the Free Speech Union since it was first conceived and I am honoured to have been accepted onto the Board. It is difficult to see how any other issue that matters to society can be progressed if the principles the Free Speech Union stands for cannot be relied on.
Professionally, I have enjoyed more of a gentle meander than a climb to the top. I graduated from Otago Medical School in 1989 and got out of the hospital system and into the community fairly promptly. For the last ten years, I have been immersed in aged care. I am the principal of a group that attends around a dozen aged-care facilities in Auckland. It is a privilege, to deal with people on the last lap of life, many who no longer remember who they are or the life stretched out behind them.
Age and frailty have drawn me towards what is loosely called Lifestyle medicine, which is the science of staying well as we get older. I am the author of The Internal Flame, an account of how the immune system causes life’s big diseases and how lifestyle manipulations, particularly elements in the diet called nutraceuticals, can hold the line against them. I have a regular column on these themes in Life and Leisure magazine. Occasionally, I have opinion pieces in Stuff and the Herald on issues of the day.
I also practise law. I have a practising certificate as a Barrister sole and I generally stick to lower-level crime. Traffic offences, burglary, whatever legal aid tosses me, in the main. I have enjoyed some headlines over the years with various outcomes and it all makes for an interesting working week. The first half is in front of a judge or beavering away on a submission, the second half wandering the wards of the frail and demented. And writing here and there.
My private life revolves around my spouse Sarah, a daughter who is a solicitor and a second one about to graduate in engineering. Sarah and I live in Auckland, with a weekend retreat at Snellsbeach. During rare periods of downtime, I enjoy walking the beach at Snells, reading and pottering in the garden.
To access the Free Speech Union Council Candidates Report, follow this link to download the PDF.
When recently attending the Free Speech Union’s event at the University of Otago, I was struck by two thoughts: who was there, and who wasn’t.
I have already come to realise I traverse two increasingly separate worlds. As a student, in the shadow of the ivory tower of academia, intersectionality, anti-racism, post-colonialism, and the destruction of anything old, white, and male reign supreme. Yet, among my wider family - and to many others in this country - these ideas butt up against the values which have enabled us to build this liberal democratic society. As an example, in the views of the latter group, co-governance is perceived as an unjustified exception to the principle of equal universal suffrage, which many have fought and died for. Whereas, in uni-land, it is seen as the opposite: a necessity to fix past injustice.
In between these two worlds, day-by-day, tension is growing as they diverge further apart. We are becoming a polarised country. It seems clear to me, that the only way to resolve these tensions within society is dialogue. Robust, critical, unrestricted, and open dialogue - and the fostering of a spirit of curiosity to understand the other’s world view.
Consequently, I find the failure of anyone on the political Left to turn up to the event hosted by the Free Speech Union at Otago University, which sought to both protect and define the limits of freedom of speech, highly disappointing.
If freedom of speech means anything, it means giving others the right to say things you do not want to hear, even if these things appear upsetting or abhorrent. Moreover, up until very recent times the university has, as an institution, held itself out to be the arena in which all and any ideas can be contested - believing that it is only in this contest, no matter how difficult or controversial it may be, that truth can be found.
However, it now seems that many (perhaps most) within the university system refuse to contribute to this contest. Moreover, for the most controversial topics, they even refuse to allow it to occur at all. Then, when those in the other world get louder and more vexatious towards them in reply, they are outraged. They pursue an ideology that seems to censor anyone who rejects their world view. It is ideological hubris in the extreme.
All that said, I equally do not doubt that some people on the political Right simply wanted to use the event as a platform to hurl abuse. Their ad hominem attacks did not focus on the contest of ideas; they played the person, not the ball, and through this stifled genuine debate. I find it difficult to reconcile what I heard at points within the event with what I believe is freedom of speech’s requisite duty; the duty to allow others to speak – and the duty to then listen.
Whilst, to his credit, Peter Williams did guide the panel (of Michael Woodhouse MP, James McDowall MP, and Dunedin Mayoral candidate Lee Vandervis) in fielding difficult questions from the crowd despite these outbursts, it was clear this was not the productive debate it could have been.
From the Left, there lacked the courage to front up and listen to those who think differently the courage to present their views on freedom of speech (and its limits) reasonably and rationally despite what they might have construed (probably correctly) as a hostile crowd. And from the Right the wisdom to control their emotions – to focus on reason – and give the debate the creditability it deserved.
Thus, instead of leaving with a concept of freedom of speech befitting of both worlds, I was left in a relative quagmire. I agreed with what was said by the panel for the most part – but it was unchallenged – and I am the poorer from it. Moreover, the outbursts unfortuantely justified the Left’s refusal to attend. The steady march of polarisation within our country carries on.
Free speech has been the foundation on which liberal democracy has been built. In all its imperfectection, I believe it remains demonstrably the best option available. The work of the Free Speech Union to protect the crucial liberty of speech, from both the Left and the Right is thus crucial. Yet free speech is in itself not the full solution. It takes each of us to show up and respect the other side for the peace and stability we enjoy in our country to be maintained.
*Tomas O’Brien is a supporter of the Free Speech Union and law student at Otago University
We're told that democracy dies in darkness. Perhaps it would be more fitting to say democracy dies in silence. And it is a violent death that comes by the hands of those who would try to control your speech and beliefs.
The attack on Salman Rushdie over the weekend is a horrifying wake-up call to something we must never forget: no matter how much our would-be-censors deny it, free speech is the safest, most peaceful, and most inclusive way for us to live together.
Rushdie was attacked Saturday by an assailant with a knife while speaking in upstate New York and remains in a serious, but stable condition. He had spent decades in hiding after publishing ‘The Satanic Verses’ in 1989, a novel that saw Ayatollah Khomeini, the Supreme Leader of Iran, put a bounty on the author’s head for insulting the Muslim prophet. The book's Japanese translator was murdered and Rushdie has known a day like this could come.
Rushdie and ‘The Satanic Verses’ were an early signal that the liberal West could no longer be relied upon to uphold progressive values such as freedom of speech. Incredibly at the time, even some authors suggested Rushdie at least partially brought the dire situation on himself.
The attack isn’t the result of Rushdie’s free speech. The blame for the fear Rushdie lived under for decades, and this attack, must be placed on those who seek to use violence to control others. They alone are responsible for their actions.
The most intolerant in our societies do not have a special right to silence those they disagree with.
Those who wanted Rushdie and other authors to self-edit are kowtowing to absolute thugs. Whenever authors, no matter who they are, are threatened with violence over the words they write and art they create, there should be one response and one response only: solidarity with the author.
Yes, words can harm. They harm the ideas we cling to, the concepts we hold sacred, the ideas we consider unassailable. Words must be able to 'harm', or our society will become static. But this harm is not the same as violence, and the campaign to link the two, in order to justify speech restrictions, is false, cynical, and anti-democratic to its core.
"Non-violence and truth are inseparable and presuppose one another.” — Mahatma Gandhi
Violence in the name of ideology is the polar opposite of free speech. It is the ultimate attempt to silence those who do not share your worldview.
Differences of political and religious opinion must be navigated with reason and dialogue. Never through violence. Never through fear.
Those who refuse to resolve ideological differences with words are the ones who turn to violence. Those who refuse to respectfully engage in civil dialogue with those they disagree with are the ones who become hateful extremists in the first place.
Freedom of speech — the fundamental human right to peacefully express one’s opinion — is an inherently non-violent principle. This is why we seek to protect it.
"[Rushdie] is the opposite of silence. Writers are the opposite of silence. If you want us to be silent, you want us to be dead" - Scottish novelist Al Kennedy
I want to finish with something I read over the weekend in The Atlantic that resonates with me as a writer (you can read the whole article here):
Writers represent the part of our culture that engages with humanity through ideas, whose passion is expressed through sentences and paragraphs and pages. It’s a realm we should not just preserve but defend. May it never be eroded by the brute force of an arm wielding a knife. We should all hope that Rushdie survives. And not just because a writer should never have to give his life for what he has written. But because we need him to keep reminding us of the worst of what can happen—the violence that can happen—to someone who has used nothing more than his words.
We do the work we do, and Rushdie spoke out in the way he did, not because we believe all speech is helpful or that it is never harmful. This is clearly untrue. It is because history is crystal clear. The alternatives, whether they be well-intentioned legislation, regulatory overreach into our lives (either by the Government or Civil Society), or self-censorship, are far worse.
If we refuse to learn from history, to learn from attacks like this on Rushdie, and insist on trying to control each other's speech and beliefs, our would-be-censors condemned us to a future that is less free and more violent.
As Kenan Malik wrote in his Guardian column, 'We can only hope for Salman Rushdie’s recovery from his terrible attack. What we can insist on, however, is continuing to “say the unsayable”, to question the boundaries imposed by both racists and religious bigots. Anything less would be a betrayal'.
That's why we do the work we do. Thank you for standing with us in this fight.
Last week, Local Government New Zealand (LGNZ), in association with Race Relations Commissioner Meng Foon, released their Inclusive Campaigning Guidelines — a series of recommendations on how local government candidates are expected to conduct themselves during upcoming local elections.
On its surface, it would appear to carry good intentions, promoting principles such as inclusion, diversity and respectful debate. However, under closer scrutiny the façade crumbles and the guidelines reveal themselves for what they really are: an attempt to suppress debate around crucial issues.
The Free Speech Union doesn’t doubt that this year’s local elections could prove divisive; many transformational policies have been put on the table. But the idea any controversy can be mitigated by censorship would be laughable if it didn’t point to an alarming trend that can only undermine democracy.
In a message that kicks off the guidelines, LGNZ chief executive Susan Freeman-Green is open that her goal is to “shift what’s acceptable” in local government debate, as if it is those in power who should set the agenda, not voters. Who gifted Freeman-Green this right, exactly?
As soon as power stops taking their lead from the people, we no longer have a democracy.
The author’s partisan motives are barely veiled too. The guidelines call out the framing of debates around Māori wards and Three Waters as “racist and derogatory”. We would agree that there has been some unfortunate commentary, but in a recent interview Foon asserted that opposition to Māori wards and co-governance was “saying Māori shouldn’t be participating in anything, that they should be subservient” and that “Māori should not be participating in the decision-making of Aotearoa”. This is to classify all opposition to the policies as racist, which is not only untrue, it is counterproductive.
In the same interview Foon added “any candidates that actually in my view fall out of line — they will be held to account”. Does this mean that any candidate who disagrees with Foon on these policy questions could soon be forced to weather a smear campaign?
In response to these actions which undermine democracy, we have put together our own set of guidelines which we are calling the Truly Tolerant Campaigning Guidelines, in the hope candidates are encouraged to be themselves on the campaign trial, and to show leadership rather than running for cover from even the most divisive debates.
For starters, our own guidelines make it clear that proposed Government policy must never be a “no-go zone” for political debate. How communities are governed and how their local assets are managed is of critical importance to ratepayers, and candidates have every right to facilitate frank discussions about what this may look like, and how it will impact on New Zealanders. If we are standing, as some have said, at a crossroads for race relations in this country, we need to have as thorough and as far-reaching a debate as possible on the issues.
Will feelings be hurt? Will people overstep the mark? Without doubt. But narrowing the parameters of debate won’t make any ill-feeling go away. It will just make the already embittered feel they were conspired against and denied a voice; and they would have a case. We hear plenty of talk about how to involve more people in the democratic process, and yet LGNZ and Foon seem more than happy to drive (certain) people away.
We also make it clear in our guidelines that while respect is critical to healthy debate, what one person calls “respectable” is often subjective so cannot be imposed on political candidates. In fact, political debates already have a measure for what is considered respectable and worthy of representing our communities — it’s called voting.
This all isn’t to say we feel the LGNZ’s Inclusive Campaigning Guidelines aren’t completely without worth. The importance of Te Reo Māori as an official language in New Zealand is a point we completely agree with. But, in the main, Local Government New Zealand and Meng Foon’s guidelines prioritise power over the people. In the case of Foon, he clearly just wants policies he is fond of waved through.
We urge this term’s cohort of local government candidates and voters to reject this antidemocratic screed published by LGNZ and to make themselves familiar with the Free Speech Union’s Truly Tolerant Campaigning Guidelines. Accountability for politicians should not come from unelected, unaccountable commissioners, but from those who call the shots.
The intimidation of the Fellows
Seventy notable academics have sent a motion of no-confidence to the Royal Society over its handling of the professors’ letter to the Listener — but some of their colleagues say they are too fearful to sign it. Graham Adams reports.
If anyone ever believed universities are institutions where academics can speak their minds freely and openly, the stoush sparked by the letter that seven University of Auckland professors sent to the Listener last July should have thoroughly disabused them of that notion.
What should have been an uncontroversial statement that mātauranga Māori is “not science” and therefore should not be included in the NCEA science syllabus led to a wave of condemnation and vilification of the professors. And this despite the fact they made it clear that indigenous knowledge was valuable both “for the preservation and perpetuation of culture and local practices” and in “key roles in management and policy”. What’s more, prominent Māori scholars such as Professor Sir Mason Durie had already acknowledged that science and indigenous knowledge are incommensurable.
Even the professors’ own Vice-Chancellor, Dawn Freshwater, hung them out to dry with what one British journalist described as a “hand-wringing, cry-bullying email” that referred to the “considerable hurt and dismay” the letter had caused staff, students and alumni.
Three of the professors, Robert Nola, Garth Cooper and Michael Corballis, were Fellows of the Royal Society NZ, but — rather than supporting their right to speak publicly about their concerns about mātauranga Māori in a science syllabus — it responded with a statement on its website that said their views were not only “misguided” but caused “harm”.
Last November, it also instigated disciplinary action against Nola, Cooper and Corballis after complaints were laid. (Corballis has since died.)
After a barrage of criticism from famous international scientists, including Richard Dawkins, Jerry Coyne and Steven Pinker, our premier academy for science and the humanities abandoned its pursuit of the two professors in March. But if it hoped that would be the end of the matter it was sorely mistaken.
Last week, 70 of the society’s more than 400 Fellows signed a letter to the society calling for a no-confidence motion to be debated at the 56th hui ā-tau o Ngā Ahurei Annual Fellowship on 28 April.
It began: “Many of us have lost confidence in the current Academy Executive and Council, whose actions seemingly have brought the society into disrepute, shutting down useful debate and bringing international opprobrium from leading scientists.
“We are further concerned about the lack of agency that Fellows have following the many restructures of the society over the last several years, and the spending of fellowship fees to cover lawyers’ costs and, presumably, public relations consultants to defend the society’s very poor processes and actions.”
The three specific objections made in the letter were to the statement published on the society’s website last year (described as “ill-conceived, hasty and inaccurate in large part”); the way the society handled the complaints against Professors Nola and Cooper; and lastly the “unfortunate” fact the pair felt compelled to resign.
As the letter put it: “It is extremely unfortunate that this process has led to the resignation from this Academy of two of its distinguished Fellows. One is a renowned philosopher of science, and the other is perhaps the strongest scientist of Māori descent in the society and is someone who has been active in supporting Māori students in education for decades, and who, along with other experts in science, offered an expert opinion that was rejected by the society as being without merit, and characterised as racist by members of the Academy Executive (and current and former Councillors).”
The motion was moved and seconded by two of the nation’s most prestigious and accomplished mathematicians, Distinguished Professor Gaven Martin and Distinguished Professor Marston Condor.
Among the 70 signatories were internationally renowned heavyweights, including Distinguished Professors Brian Boyd and Peter Schwerdtfeger — celebrated scholars in literature and theoretical chemistry respectively — and Professor Alan Bollard, a former Governor of the Reserve Bank, and chief executive and secretary to Treasury.
Having a substantial chunk of the Royal Society’s Fellows formally object to its handling of the Listener letter and the fallout is momentous but what is also remarkable — and remarkably depressing — is that the number of signatories would have been even higher if other Fellows had not feared for their livelihoods and careers by signing.
Gaven Martin’s covering letter included these dismal paragraphs: ”Sadly several other Fellows have also indicated they will vote in favour, but because of the potential harassment and bullying they believe they would receive (from some current and former members of the Academy and the RSNZ Council, and from colleagues in senior and other positions within their university), they do not wish to disclose their names in this document, especially if it becomes public.
“Many younger Fellows and others have said (again in writing) that their jobs would be at risk signing this letter.
“Two Fellows (major Royal Society NZ medallists) said this: ‘Better not [sign] at this stage… I agree with all the statements — but you can’t imagine the pressure being put on us. I will vote for the motion though.’”
And: “In confidence I am disillusioned with RSNZ and I am too scared to sign anything for fear of what may happen to me at [the University of Auckland] if I do so.”
Martin noted: “This is a startling indictment of the situation in the research community in New Zealand at the moment, and of the way in which the RSNZ handled and exacerbated the controversy over the letter to the Listener.”
The letter’s signatories ask that the society write to Professors Cooper and Nola, and to the estate of Professor Corballis, and apologise for its handling of the entire process.
They also want the society to “review its current code of conduct to ensure that this cannot happen again, and in future the actions of the Academy/Council are far more circumspect and considered in regards to complaints concerning contentious matters”.
Lastly, that the entire society “be reviewed, examining structure and function and alignment with other international academies, and the agency given its Fellows upon whom its reputation rests”.
While it is at it, the Royal Society might also like to apologise to the other four professors who signed the Listener letter but are not Fellows given that their reputations were all sullied by the statement the society put on its website about their views being misguided and harmful.
However, you’d have to say that right now the society will have its hands full just dealing with the explosive no-confidence motion placed before it.
A bob both ways: commercial argument for free speech
Today’s column by Dita De Boni on the Free Speech Union and NZME unfortunately illustrates the name-calling and guilt-by-association which characterises so many contentious public conversations today. FSU has chosen to respond to the article and to its credit, NBR has agreed to publish it.
In my view, opinion columns such as De Boni’s today, which go beyond the factual and into speculative accusations, inhibit constructive debate. This doesn’t serve the commercial interests of anyone.
In response to our work calling on NZME to operate as an impartial publisher and maintain a commitment to free speech (apparently these are controversial requests) De Boni writes: ‘One would think that… the FSU might agree that NZME has the right to publish precisely what it wants, and take money from whom it wants, safe in the knowledge there would have to be a very good reason if not.’
She is absolutely correct we would and have admitted exactly this on a number of occasions. In a series of conversations with NZME CEO Michael Boggs and the NZME board, we have consistently recognised the right of NZME to carry whatever legal material it wishes and to decline whatever adverts it wants. A simple phone call or email would have allowed us at the Free Speech Union to clarify this.
However, in the long run, no one benefits from limiting debate and silencing opposition on critical social questions. No matter which side of the debate you sit on, whether it is your opinion that trans women are literally women or if you maintain a traditional feminist’s view of sex and gender, limiting the debate is unhelpful. (NB: the Free Speech Union doesn’t take a stand on this issue or any other - we simply insist that free speech is the most peaceful and productive way forward for all parties.)
Despite De Boni’s claims, the commercial interests of NZME, or any business, will indeed be undermined by avoiding all controversy or fearing the appearance of being out of vogue. Selective censorship hands a big stick to the noisiest and most aggressive mob of the day and suggests that by excluding some views, NZME implicitly endorses every perspective they do choose to platform.
In the long run, no one benefits from limiting debate and silencing opposition on critical social questions.
A principled dedication to simply allow a diversity of opinions would avoid such inferences and allow for vigorous debate to lead a path forward. You may call this having a bob both ways, but impartiality and balance is essentially just that. When the alternative is name-calling and cancel culture, surely this is by far the superior option.
However, it must be noted that De Boni is not representing the stance NZME actually took. NZME did not attempt to make the argument for avoiding controversy to protect commercial interests. Along with Chief Executive Michael Boggs, NZME General Counsel Allison Whitney claimed that to run gender critical material would be to “place our staff in an unsafe working environment.”
This suggestion ignores the fact that the work of the Fourth Estate, in general, is frequently controversial and uncomfortable. Protecting all NZME staff from opinions they don’t share will result in a very narrow scope of reporting. De Boni should have reported on the facts of the situation, which is that this is a dispute about “safety” and protecting adults from opinions that upset them, not about commercial interests.
De Boni also made the claim that the Free Speech Union “is an organisation with unknown funding sources and an alignment with international far-right and libertarian causes.” (Reference to ‘far-right’ has been subsequently removed). The Free Speech Union would have been happy to discuss with De Boni that we are fortunate enough to have the support of a large number of small donors and members here in New Zealand. Had she placed even one phone call to confirm or correct her assertions, she would have found her claims about our funding to be demonstrably incorrect.
Additionally, the many Left-wing, Liberal, and progressive Kiwis who are members of the Free Speech Union, including prominent individuals like Chris Trotter, Matt McCarten, Dane Giraud, and Daphna Whitmore, would likely be aghast to hear of the so-called “alignment with international far-right.. causes.” Thankfully, this accusation is easily put to bed.
Every dollar we have received to date has come from one of our 75,000 Kiwi supporters. Very few donations are over $1,000. We are the essence of a grassroots campaign funded by everyday New Zealanders who have just about had enough of the base pontificating, moralising, and name-calling that undermines respectful debate. The irony of it all though, is if someone tried to silence De Boni, we’d still defend her speech.
We extend the invitation to journalists at NBR, and beyond, to speak with our representatives at the Free Speech Union to find out more about who we are, what we do, and why we do it. We will, of course, defend their right to publish their honest opinions about us.
Jonathan Ayling is the chief executive of the Free Speech Union.