Free Speech Union's submission on the Contraception, Sterilisation, and Abortion (Safe Areas) Amendment Bill

Contraception, Sterilisation, and Abortion (Safe Areas) Amendment Bill – hearing of evidence (5 May 2021)

This Member’s bill provides a regulation-making power to set up safe areas around specific abortion facilities on a case-by-case basis.

Presented on behalf of the Free Speech Union by Dane Giraud. Text prepared by Dane Giraud & Patrick Corish.

Tena Koutou,

If there has been any frustration volunteering for the Free Speech Coalition it would be in the number of critics who suggest that to support a certain voice or message, we must in some way sympathize with the voice or message.

This is an allegation no one with even a cursory understanding of the concept of FREE SPEECH could possibly make.

When we defended the rights of touring YouTube provocateurs Stephan Molyneux and Lauren Southern - to hire and speak in an Auckland City Council building - we were defending the climate change activists, the feminists, the trans-activists – anyone who may see fit to hire a council building in the future.

In the Free Speech game, we must always have an eye on the future.

This is our core job: not to defend specific views, but to act as a buttress against the setting of worrying precedents that could be used to silence any view.

Now, as tempting as it may be to consider this specific topic as separate, unique, and demanding special considerations - you do New Zealanders a grave disservice if you do so.  Like us, we urge you to consider the impact of this Bill on our collective tomorrow. And what this Bill does – with its brazen undermining of our right to freedom of expression – is risk the right of all New Zealanders to engage in that pillar of democracy...

Protest. 

What is protest? According to one dictionary definition - "A usually organized public demonstration of disapproval". I'd posit all progressive movements, and movements for social change, have featured some form of public protest. We protest to put pressure on power. We do it to draw attention to minority issues the media cannot or will not cover. And we do it to try to convince others of the validity of our cause and to find allies. We must be committed to peaceful protest - and in that, we are not immune from laws against harassment, intimidation, wilful damage, etc. But this does not mean that protests are a timid affair.

Protest is more often robust, employing powerful rhetoric, imagery, and provocative sloganeering. A protester is seeking 'cut-through and to appeal to the conscience via the emotions, and most of us have accepted that there will be protest movements led by fellow citizens that will attack our value systems and sensibilities. Protests are meant to upset and even seriously disturb us. What this bill seeks to do is to deny the democratic right and violate the equality of a single protest movement through safe zones that would render protest ineffective by taking away the all-important proximity to a certain key location. Potential protesters will be scared of, by the highly subjective language used in the bill, which will make them unsure of exactly where the line between legal and illegal sits. 

And all for one issue.

If the bill is required in this case, why can't it be applied to the anti-Israel movement?

In anti-Israel protests you are guaranteed to see swastikas in mock Israeli flags – the sign of a regime that slaughtered 6,000,000 Jews attributed to Jews themselves as a way of making some sort of demented comparison. Protesters on Queen Street have been seen wearing Hezbollah T-shirts, a group whose leaders espouse genocidal rhetoric against the Jewish people.  Distressing images of dead children are paraded around alongside chants calling for the end of the Jewish state, the end of Jewish autonomy and safety. How is the average Jew who passes these grotesque displays likely to be made to feel?

So, consider banning such protests outside their places of worship? Why not embassies, then? Or any gathering Jews or Israelis could be attending? Such protests are objectively distressing to Jewish people, but these activists should still have the right to express their political opinions, however unsettling because removing the rights of this movement could be used to justify removing the rights of any movement. We have existing harassment laws to punish any protesters who cross the line, and this should be sufficient to moderate the conduct outside abortion clinics also. 

The distress that one feels in receiving a message, a protest, or an appeal is a personal affair. As I have said, protests may very well disturb and distress. Most worthwhile communications about ethics will cause distress. Because we are dealing with right and wrong, the oughts and ought nots. Disagreement can be emotionally taxing. But as adults in society, these conversations are some of the most rewarding to have.

We tolerate speech that leads to children being tormented at the thought of a climate apocalypse. This is clearly a distressing issue to many of our young. But it is an important issue, some climate advocates would no doubt say, and the force of rhetoric is vital to communicating the immediacy of the threat. Pro-lifers feel the same. Why deny their right to communicate a message at the last point where they feel they could make a difference? Why deny them that right when we have movements that actively seek to psychologically scar children that you and I know will never be policed? As is so often the case, when the state plays censor we see this type of absurd bias, which amounts to a violation of equality.

There is another concerning dimension to this current trend of censorship - that of certain factions clearly viewing illiberal policy as a way to limit the influence on other adult citizens, of views they don't agree with.

As a hypothetical, what if one potential mother was to be convinced by some of the messaging they saw on the way inside a clinic and chose – of their own free volition - not to then follow through with the procedure? I wonder, would that be seen as a positive or a negative by the authors of this Bill? Because this is an outcome the Bill actively seems to want to control. We focus on the messengers a lot in these debates, but what about a person's right to receive information? Yes, even information they thought they didn't want. Limiting exposure to perfectly legal counter-messaging should never, ever be an activity of the state. 

We can protect the women visiting these clinics with existing laws. You know it. I know it. That should really be the end of it. We can protect them. Laws exist now that address intimidation and harassment. But this bill goes beyond offering further remedies against such behavior. It seeks to outlaw communication in general. Good-faith communication. Communication that goes to the heart of a moral matter. The Bill does say that the only communication outlawed would be that which an ordinary reasonable person would consider distressing.

But in honesty, that could be all communication that deals with an emotionally charged phenomenon like abortion. Again, matters of an ethical nature are distressing. They wouldn’t be discussions worth having otherwise.

If this bill is successful, this won't be the last of it. In a short space of time, the harrowing imagery and rhetoric of the climate change movement could be delimited using a comparable law by climate-denying zealots. The anti-Israel movement too. Anti-war movements in general. The excuse will be that there is a precedent for limiting protest deemed to be too unsettling for the sensibilities of select members of the public. Any wound on protest movements is a wound on our democracy. And this Bill will certainly inflict a wound on subsequent protest movements. We would urge that you think beyond the topic, and to the all-but-certain ramifications, and to use this bill as a reminder that people did not vote you in to undermine their basic democratic rights. The Free Speech Coalition, respectfully ask that you vote this bill down.

Nga Mihi