Letter to South Wairarapa District Council
13 September, 2021
District Council Mayor
South Wairarapa District Council
Chief ExecuCve Officer
South Wairarapa District Council
Community Board Chair MarCnborough Community
[email protected] [email protected] [email protected]
GAGGING OF ELECTED MEMBERS By SWDC
We write in response to media reports that the South Wairarapa District Council’s (SWDC) Code of Conduct for elected members contains a clause restricting criticism of Council decisions and policy. The Free Speech Union is a registered trade union with a mission to fight for, protect and expand New Zealander’s rights to freedom of speech, of conscience and of intellectual inquiry.
On 9 September 2021, RNZ reported that the SWDC Code of Conduct for elected members contained a clause stating "Elected members are entitled to make public statements expressing their opinion on matters before the council ... such statements may not criticise the conduct of the council, other elected members or officers of the council, nor should they undermine any exercising policy or decision of the council."
The Free Speech Union is naturally concerned about the inclusion of the clause. Not only is it an affront to freedom of expression, but we are concerned that its operation is likely having a pernicious effect on democracy accountability and decision-making in South Wairarapa. Councillors are elected to be the voices of the people in the corridors of power – not spin doctors for the Council. The voting public have a right to know how decisions are made in their community, not simply what decisions are made.
We are curious to know more about how this clause came to be included in the Code of Conduct, especially given that LGNZ's Code of Conduct template states: "Members are free to express a personal view to the media or social media at any time, provided the following rules are observed: comments shall be consistent with the Code; comments must not purposefully misrepresent the views of the Council or the views of other members". Could you please explain the process that was gone through to lead to the inclusion of the clause and what consideration was given to free speech implications. Consider this a request for information under the Local Government Official Information and Meetings Act 1987 if necessary.
If a situation occurred at SWDC where an elected member was prevented from making comment on a matter by virtue of the clause, it is likely a case to which we would lend our voice. We would appreciate an opportunity to meet with you discuss the clause and also to talk more broadly about our work- I would be happy to travel to meet with you in Greytown.
Free Speech Union (New Zealand) Inc.
Free Speech Union (New Zealand) Inc.
“Non-violence and truth are inseparable and presuppose one another.” — Mahatma Gandhi
Two years ago in Christchurch, New Zealand was subjected to an horrific act of extreme violence, in the name of ideology.
Yesterday, another terrorist attack was carried out, this time in Auckland.
Both of these despicable acts of terrorism on New Zealand soil were committed by cowards.
Both targeted innocent people who were simply going about their lives. Both used weapons instead of words. Both used violence and terror in an attempt to further their extreme agendas.
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.
The blame for each of these horrendous attacks is solely on the terrorists. They alone are responsible for their actions. The Muslim community of Aotearoa — still grieving and healing from March 15 — is no more represented by this extremist individual than our Australian community were represented by the Christchurch shooter.
Our deepest sympathies are with the victims of this attack and their whānau, and all those affected by it.
Mr Hunt, you don’t speak for me
Chief Human Rights Commissioner Paul Hunt’s op-ed yesterday defending the government's proposed hate speech laws is thoroughly predictable after a month of terrible comms that failed to convince New Zealanders on the issue. An overwhelming 80% of submissions opposed the laws. This has failed to move Hunt, who seems happy to be out of step with the rest of New Zealand.
And make no mistake, those opposed to the laws are incredibly diverse. Our steering group itself is made up of several members from ethnic and religious minority groups and folk from the LGBT community. Despite this, Paul Hunt has labelled us an “uninterested party” and will not meet with us. His reasons barely need explaining: these minority members won't support his narrative.
Paul Hunt argues in his piece that hate speech is wrong because “it denies dignity and equality to individuals and communities”. Where is the dignity in the State sending police officers to knock at your door over opinions you've expressed? Where is the dignity for the family le> without a father or mother while this parent sits in a prison cell, for up to three years, due to words they spoke? The freer the society, the more dignity. A society that censors speech to the degree we see in the proposed laws is a society with utter contempt for its citizens, and their dignity.
Hunt also talks of hate speech denying equality. But it is speech restrictions that deny equality. All you must do is think of the potential impact on feminists should laws be brought in that prohibit robust criticism of gender identity. The effect of such a law will unquestionably “stack the deck” against women and women's issues. But these laws will go much further. They will very specifically violate the equality of minorities within our minority groups. Take, for example, anti-Zionist Jews within the Jewish community, minority Muslim sects like the Ahmadiyya community, and dissenting LGBT voices, such as lesbians who have all but been thrown out of PRIDE celebrations due to wrong- think. If international trends are anything to go by, nonconforming minorities have the most to fear from the proposed new laws.
Hunt writes in his piece “if you are powerful and privileged it is easy to dismiss the idea of boundaries indicating what is acceptable but if you are a member of a disadvantaged group or ethnic minority, faith community, sexual minority a woman or disabled person boundaries matter”. What Hunt is trying to say here is that minorities “get it” and that by promoting this illiberal policy he is somehow speaking for us. A recent poll commissioned by the Free Speech Union found that 42% of Muslims now oppose the proposed laws. The Jewish community was so split over them that many of the planned submissions were abandoned. Hunt is simply lying when he suggests minority groups are of one mind on this. The Human Rights Commission very carefully curates who it will speak to within our groups and simply ignores the perspectives that don’t bolster their arguments. This is a common talking point within our communities. This is seriously damaging to us because it denies us our diversity and sends a dangerous message to the public that the majority of us want to take our fellow New Zealander's rights away. Be assured, this is simply not true.
The fact is, minorities know better than most of the importance of free speech - even nasty and truly offensive speech - because free speech was the central principle that delivered us full rights in the West. A>er claiming he is concerned about hate speech promulgating stereotypes, Hunt is trying to promote a picture of us to the public that is false.
Your average member of a minority group has far more to fear from the advocacy of individuals like Hunt and his speech restrictions than we do from offensive or even hateful speech. Both Hunt and the laws are determined to associate us with fear in state censorship in people’s minds, and in doing so will throw up walls between us and the majority. Maybe as an especially privileged member of the majority himself, Hunt just is unable to grasp this. But signalling to wider New Zealand that they need one of their most basic rights taken away in order to make us happy is reckless and irresponsible.
This man is not our friend.
Not only does Hunt fail to make any real defence of speech restrictions in his op-ed, but he calls into question the function of his organisation and makes clear that it is minority groups that should be leading anti-racist campaigns and programs – not detached, upper-class academics.
Even if I could be convinced his intentions are 100% pure, Hunt’s goal of controlling the speech of everyday New Zealanders will hurt minorities and must be rejected.
Free Speech Union Conversion Therapy Submission Explained
The introduction of the Conversion Practices Prohibition Bill (CPP Bill) to Parliament by Minister for Justice Kris Faafoi was a long-awaited win for many Kiwis in the Rainbow Community, and wider. For others though, it represented yet another ideological over-reach by the Government, legalising what is still disputed.
We accept that members and supporters of the Free Speech Union may hold different opinions on this Bill, and to us, that is OK. Even within our team, there were differing strongly held opinions. As a Union, we accept that we will not agree on everything, yet our commitment to stand for, support, and extend the freedom of speech for all Kiwis still applies.
With this belief in mind, and leaving aside the substantial elements of the purpose behind the CPP Bill, the Free Speech Union found it necessary to draw attention to aspects of the Bill which undermine free speech. As we state in our submission, “The wider goals of this Bill aren’t of concern to our organisation, and should the concerns we raise in this submission be addressed we would have no more to contribute to the matter.”
Our submission draws attention to three key concerns related to the ways in which the Bill undermines free speech:
- The inconsistency in stating an intention of the Bill is to promote respectful and open discussions, yet it limits free speech;
- The limitations on an individual’s freedom of speech and right to open dialogue, preventing consent from operating as an exemption;
- The insufficient recognition of ‘applied theology’, and the freedom of religious expression and speech, which translates into action.
One of two listed purposes of the Bill is to ‘promote respectful and open discussions regarding sexuality and gender.’ This is a laudable goal. Facilitating free speech by promoting and opening up discussions is the surest path forward to limit harm and abuse. Yet, despite this admirable intention, the substance of the Bill goes on to shut crucial conversations down. As such, amendments to the legislation must be made. Advice provided by Crown Law states that the bill causes a significant limitation on freedom of expression,’ and that there could be a ‘chilling effect on legitimate expressions of opinions’. We believe exemptions must be included, such as a parental exemption, which will limit this ‘chilling effect.’
Further, we believe that consent for therapy for adults should be an exemption under this Bill. It has long been recognised that the rights of minors are and should be limited by the law in order to protect their own moral and mental development and wellbeing. This includes the right to free expression, both in exercising this right and witnessing it from others. However, this Bill is not content with protecting children. It insultingly questions the maturity and capacity of adults to exercise their own autonomy and ability to engage with speech of their own choosing. This Bill is for the satisfaction of the busy-bodies, and nosey neighbours. It seeks to empower them with the tools to butt in and silence conversations they are not invited to. They will be able to complain to the Human Rights Commission despite not being an aggrieved party. Their pearl-clutching will have a chilling effect on honest and sincere conversations. This is unacceptable.
Finally, this Bill fails to recognise that there is no difference between ‘the expression only of a religious principle or belief made to an individual that is not intended to change or suppress the individual’s sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression’ which is the exemption currently provided to religious communities, and the application of that religious principle or belief- this is the concept of applied theology. Broad commandments or prohibition do not simply exist as hypotheticals. As such, this so-called religious exemption isn’t worth the paper it is written on. A stricter allowance is needed to ensure that this Bill does not seriously infringe on Kiwis freedom of religious expression.
The work of the Free Speech Union is to ensure no question is off the table- no perspective excluded outright. With the particular intent of this Bill to one side, accepting that Kiwis will have a variety of views on the subject itself, we submitted on this Bill in order to ensure that it stands by New Zealander’s freedom of expression and speech. Simply put, a number of amendments are necessary to accomplish this, and we will continue to work to ensure they are included.
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Free Speech Union Academic Advisory Council Statement on the Listener Letter
The Free Speech Union unequivocally supports the free expression of seven distinguished New Zealand academics who recently authored a letter to The Listener, titled, In Defence of Science as well as the free expression of their critics.
We neither support nor oppose the argument in question, but instead defend the right to express honestly-held views, free of individual or institutional attempts to diminish or suppress them. In this regard the authors and some of their critics differ: Whereas the letter to The Listener comprised only a reasoned argument – whether or not it is deemed valid and sound – some critics have resorted to ad hominem attacks on the authors, in particular accusing them – both directly and by implication – of racism. We encourage critics to engage in a constructive, evidence-based way, rather than making allegations that seem intended to damage reputations or careers.
Indeed, one of the defining characteristics of New Zealand universities (under s 268(2)(d)(i)(E) of the Education and Training Act 2020), is that they perform “a role of critic and conscience of society.” This, in turn, requires universities to provide an environment in which academic staff can express ideas without fear of retribution or persecution – where they can question and test received wisdom and to state controversial or unpopular ideas [s 267(4)(a)]. It also creates an expectation that university authorities will tolerate a broad variety of views, and will defend staff from any pressure they may face as a consequence of expressing those views.
It is, therefore, deeply concerning that among the critics were Professor Dawn Freshwater, the Vice Chancellor of the University of Auckland – where all of the authors of the letter are resident – and the Tertiary Education Union, to which many academics belong. The criticisms levelled by these organisations warrant especial comment.
In a public statement, Professor Freshwater affirmed the authors' right to express their views, but also implied they had disrespected mātauranga Māori, asserting that "mātauranga Māori [is] a distinctive and valuable knowledge system". There is nothing, however, in letter to The Listener that contradicts that assertion, and by making this a caveat to her affirmation of the authors right to free expression, Professor Freshwater risks impugning their reputations unfairly. In their letter, the authors argue that mātauranga Māori and science are epistemically distinct, and that "indigenous knowledge is critical for the preservation and perpetuation of culture ... and plays key roles in management and policy". A charitable reading of their letter would therefore suggest that the authors agree with Professor Freshwater that mātauranga Māori is valuable.
It is worth noting that The Science Learning Hub – Pokapū Akoranga Pūtaiao, an integral component of the New Zealand Government’s Science in Society Plan seems to agree with the authors, stating that "Mātauranga Māori is a knowledge base in its own right. It is Māori knowledge, including values and culture. It is different from modern science" (emphasis added).
Scholars within a university frequently disagree, and the role of university itself is to maintain the ground on which that disagreement can take place, in good faith and in a scholarly fashion. That means that the university, like the FSU, ought to take a neutral stance, to defend unequivocally the right and duty of its academics to make good-faith arguments, and to defend them from unfair attacks on their reputations. Instead, Professor Freshwater’s statement has made it more difficult for academics at her university to voice honestly-hold views on contentious topics in the future.
Dr Barry Hughes, also at the University of Auckland, wrote a letter on behalf of the TEU to the authors. Like Professor Freshwater, he opened by affirming that the authors are entitled to express their views, but informed them that “[TEU] members found your letter “offensive”, “racist”, and reflective of a patronising, neo-colonial mindset in which your undefined version of “science” is superior to – rather than complementary to – indigenous knowledge”. Dr Hughes went on to accuse the authors of being confused about what science is, of taking it to comprise “a set of indisputable facts about the world” and of “[presuming] that nothing is really known until it is known scientifically”. He concluded by asserting that “[the authors’] letter was damaging without being enlightening”. There is nothing in the letter to The Listener that, to our reading, justifies any of those acerbic accusations. It is outrageous for a representative of an organisation with a duty to protect academic freedom to make such baseless claims, and in such heated terms, in response to an argument put forward in good faith. Like Professor Freshwater’s statement, such a missive can only serve to make academics feel less safe to venture honestly-held views on contentious issues in the future and to render statements affirming free expression as lip-service only. We are not confident that the TEU would wholeheartedly fight for the free speech of members they disagree with should they need to.
It is lamentable that the Vice Chancellor of the University of Auckland and the TEU have taken such strong stances against the letter to The Listener, rather than encouraging respectful debate. In this context their comments about free expression come across as hollow platitudes. The net effect of the comments will be to chill scholarly debate, not to promote it.
The Free Speech Union is committed to supporting all academics to freely engage in debate. If you would like to join us at the Free Speech Union, go to fsu.co.nz.
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