Pages tagged "Censorship"

  • Understanding what really drives censorship

    Given the fight we’re in, it’s important that we really understand what actually drives censorship.

    On a recent episode of the Free Speech Union podcast, I got to talk with David Gregory, the co-owner of Severin Films, an L.A. based restoration and distribution company that rereleases classic horror, fantasy, and exploitation titles.

    OK, full disclosure: I’m a massive horror fan and have been since I was a kid. So, on that level, it was a thrill to engage with a kindred spirit (another former horror kid). But be assured, I wasn’t abusing my office at the Free Speech Union. The topic we discussed was right in our wheelhouse. Censorship. Or, more specifically, British Film Censorship in the 1980’s.

    But that was bloody decades ago, I bet you’re thinking. And in another country. We’ve got real free speech concerns now, right in front of us, like cancel culture in media, hate speech laws, and deplatforming at universities.

    I admit, I wasn’t expecting much more than a fascinating history lesson on a topic that interests me. But David and my talk was seriously enlightening as to what type of people censors are, their modus operandi, and what, ultimately, they are trying to achieve.  

    Trust me. It’s a great episode, so I don’t want to give too much away, but in a nutshell the explosion of home video in the early 80’s led to a type of moral panic in the UK. The difference between this medium and those that came before was you could press pause on the dirty or violent bits, rewind, and watch them again. And again.

    The Chief Censor at the time was a man named James Ferman. Ferman’s 24-year tenure extended through the birth of home video. The Video Recordings Act of 1984 was created to ensure commercial video recordings offered for sale or for hire within the UK carried a classification that has been agreed upon by an authority designated by the Home Office. This led to many outright bans, including of films that had previously been available (though not on the new medium of home video) such as “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and the 1971 Dustin Hoffman film Straw Dogs.

    Commenting on the “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre Ferman explicitly stated that he was specifically worried about the film’s affect on the “car worker from Birmingham” and would also speak of the danger of “people in their bedsits”, utilising their revolutionary new pause and rewind buttons, whipping themselves into a frenzy with a flood of uncensored exploitation films.

    Ferman’s unashamed classism - that the uneducated and unskilled worker wasmore susceptible to influence from controversial material – was also confirmed in the fact that high brow artistic films were treated more leniently by his office. They were for the educated, of course! The wealth class are incorruptible!

    There was no science to any of this. For example, Ferman had a thing for nunchucks and demanded cuts of a Teenage Mutant Turtles” film accordingly. Blood on breasts was another big no-no, despite no study affirming that viewers became instantly inflamed by exposure to such imagery. Ferman, it seems, was totally going off vibesas most censors do - and was potentially revealing his own idée fixe in the process.

    So, how is this relevant to us?

    Because these same haughty impulses are driving our own government’s current censorship push. The classist idea that the unwashed are more susceptible to misinformation is indistinguishable from Ferman’s pitifully low expectations of the British working class of the 80’s.

    The UK retained a strong class system through the 70’s and 80’s which is why censorship there was so prevalent: It is a tool for denying the working class. New means of communication, from the translation of the Bible through to the printing press, and the internet, have always troubled society’s most powerful. We are living through such an age, where a power-class are once again fearful of unfettered speech and information threatening their position.

    You will often hear our government speak of wanting societal cohesion when they try to justify their censorship agenda. But order would be a better word to use, and by order I mean the top remaining on top, and those on the bottom rung equally staying put. We may be looking at a restructuring of society through censorship to ensure adequate measures for suppression exist for when the real financial pain hits. Surely, it’s no coincidence that censorship has returned to the West at a moment when inequality is so pronounced.

    Who would have thought it would be a Labour government that saw as a central project the firm establishment of a new caste system? But this is what censorship seeks to entrench. I don’t need to tell you that this is not the Kiwi way.

  • Police Attempts To Criminalise Black Power Gang Patches A Gross Overreach Of Their Duties

    13 September 2022


    Police Attempts To Criminalise Black Power Gang Patches A Gross Overreach Of Their Duties

    Police attempts to seize and criminalise a flag and the patch of a new chapter of the Black Power gang in the Marlborough region are a gross overreach of their duties and powers, and must be opposed, says Dane Giraud, spokesperson for the Free Speech Union.

    “In attempting to secure the classification of an offensive gang patch as objectionable, Police are setting a dangerous precedent of creating ‘hate speech’ on the fly.

    “There is nothing in the patch that is inherently promoting crime or violence, this is simply an attempt at the suppression of an organisation’s right to speech and association, as protected under the Bill of Rights.

    “That the patch is upsetting to some is no excuse for classifying it as objectionable and thankfully the chief censor’s office agreed. What was so chilling about the submission made by the police to the censor’s office was the use of the same weak talking-points frequently used by pro-censorship activists in order to violate the rights of the gang chapter. New Zealanders should view this as a seriously distressing development.

    “The ’N-word’ that features on the flag and patch is offensive to many. But representatives of the chapter have stated that their use of the term is about neutralising it and separating it of its historic power to do harm by making it their own. Surely a historically oppressed and victimsed people should reserve this right, just as a Member of Parliament attempted to reclaim the ‘C-word’ only a few years ago. The Police didn’t try to arrest the MP then. How dare anyone, let alone law-enforcement, seek to abuse the law now.

    “This case really shows how subjective our relationship with words are - how words carry different meanings to different people - and how policing them will always violate someone’s equality.

    “That race relations commissioner Meng Foon has voiced support for this Police action is also a failure of his responsibility.

    “A chapter of a gang using an offensive slur in their patch should be the least of the Police’s concern, especially at the current time of high crime rates. Stamping out criminal activity requires the targeting of that activity, not the speech and free association of groups of people.

    “Ultimately, this is just another attempted use of the law to censor and suppress an organisation, with the weak, nebulous justification of ‘offense’.”

  • Free speech – a student's perspective

    When recently attending the Free Speech Unions event at the University of Otago, I was struck by two thoughts: who was there, and who wasnt. 

    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 others 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 speechs 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 

  • Appointment Of New Chief Censor Opportunity To Strengthen Respect For Free Speech In New Zealand

    15 June 2022


    Appointment Of New Chief Censor Opportunity To Strengthen Respect For Free Speech In New Zealand

    The Free Speech Union looks forward to working with newly appointed Chief Censor of Film and Literature, Caroline Flora. With increasing government overreach and calls for regulation of Kiwis’ speech, we call on her to embody the restraint and prudence intended for the Office of Film and Literature Classification, says Jonathan Ayling, spokesperson for the Free Speech Union.

    “The appointment of a new Chief Censor over the Office of Film and Literature Classifications is an opportunity to strengthen the deference government and state actors have for Kiwis’ free speech. Ambiguous references to ‘harm’ and ‘safety’ are not sufficient to guide the work of individuals tasked with limiting free expression.

    “We have already reached out to the new Chief Censor inviting her to sit down with our team. As New Zealand’s largest organisation dedicated to protecting and extending Kiwis’ fundamental speech rights, we are committed to engaging with her as we continue to ensure this liberty is preserved.

    “The independence of the Chief Censor is crucial for her ability to function impartially. We call on Ms. Flora to execute her role with the respect due to Kiwis’ free speech, and not with disregard for diverse or minority opinions which has become commonplace. It is unclear exactly how her previous professional experience is related to this significant role. We look forward to discussing this with her and hope still will succeed in withstanding Government intervention and other pressures over this work.

    “We look forward to her acting as a voice of reason to the Government’s follies of hate speech and censorship reform. Public engagement on issues like this has made it clear that Kiwis don’t want or need to be told what they can say.

    “We also acknowledge the work of outgoing Chief Censor, David Shanks, and the cordial relationship we had with him during his tenure as parties invested in Kiwis’ freedom of expression. We hope this new relationship with the Censor will be equally constructive and receptive.”

  • Wellington City Council Must Not Exclude Pro-Palestinian Political Speech

    17 May 2022


    Wellington City Council Must Not Exclude Pro-Palestinian Political Speech

    The reported actions of Wellington’s Mayor blocking the lighting up of the Michael Fowler Centre to commemorate the Nakba Day – a day of remembrance to mark the Arab loss in the Israel/ Arab war of 1948 – is an abuse of office that tramples the free speech rights of councilors and citizens. Free Speech Union spokesperson Dane Giraud – a member of New Zealand’s Jewish community – agrees that the display would undoubtably cause offense and for some to feel unsafe, but the Jewish community could be made less safe should the display not proceed.

    “Wellington Mayor Andy Foster has already said that he vetoed the display after concerns from the Israeli embassy and other Jewish groups. Though the decision was Foster's, by doing it in our name we will carry the blame for this censorship. This risks resentment which could in turn be exploited by some of the politicians who were calling for this”.

    “If democratically elected councilors had unanimously voted for this then they have a right to their freedom of expression. If voters feel this is beyond the pale there are always elections where they can make their thoughts known”.

    “The Jewish community has the option of meeting with Councilors and presenting counter-narratives. That is a far better course of action than censoring this, or any display”.

  • Chief Censor Must Not Bow To Political Activism

    21 March 2022


    The Free Speech Union is concerned that the Chief Censor has delayed the screening of The Kashmir Files in New Zealand and may prevent it from screening at all in our country. The Film is undoubtedly a controversial presentation of a complex issue, but the Censor's role is not to protect Kiwis from controversy, says Jonathan Ayling, Spokesperson for the Free Speech Union. 

    "Our understanding is that the Film has already been classified as R16 and that it has shown in cinemas in other liberal democratic countries with a similar classification. It appears as if the decision to delay (and possibly prevent) the film being screened in New Zealand has been driven by political activism.

    "It is crucial that any decision made by the Censor is done within his remit as outlined in the Films, Videos, and Publication Classification Act 1993, and not as a result of advocacy or to protect the political sensibilities of any community.

    "Speculation that this film could foster hate and, more importantly, violence must be taken into consideration. But the response of audiences in India should not determine the ability for Kiwi audiences to engage with this content.

    "We are grateful for Act and National MPs for raising concerns about this and we have written to Labour, Green, and Maori Party MPs to make sure they are aware of the serious issues and able to comment if they wish.

    "We have also written to the Chief Censor to ensure that the information we have is correct and to share our deep concerns about the possibility that his office is being politicised or bullied. We remain committed to our mission to fight for, protect and expand New Zealanders’ rights to freedom of speech."

  • Kiwis' Protest Rights Must Be Guaranteed By Free Speech

    10 February 2022


    Kiwis' Protest Rights Must Be Guaranteed By Free Speech

    Disturbing images from Parliament, where protestors are being arrested, strike a frightening tone for Kiwis' free speech, says Jonathan Ayling, Free Speech Union Spokesperson.

    “Convoy 2022, which gathered on the lawn of Parliament in opposition to the Government's vaccine mandates on Tuesday has been clearly out of line in many ways, and beyond the pale of free speech. Yet, their right to peacefully gather in front of their House of Representatives and use speech to make their case, however unpopular, should be preserved.”

    “Reports that Newstalk ZB’s senior journalist, Barry Soper, was reprimanded by the Speaker of the House for speaking with protestors defies the very purpose of the media, and their crucial role in enabling free speech. Interference of this kind is a disgraceful attempt to undermine the independence of the media.“

    “Equally, comments by Deputy Prime Minister Grant Robertson calling on the Police to ensure the law is enforced is a clear breach of section 16 of the Policing Act 2008. Ministers must not weigh in on the operational decisions of Police in relation to enforcing the law and the maintenance of order. The Prime Minister noted this was an operational matter.“

    “Several examples exist of previous protests which have also gathered on Parliament's front lawn and camped, at times for many weeks. We look at these expressions of free speech, such as the SpringBok tour or Dame Whina Cooper's Maori land rights hikoi, with great pride, now. The speech rights of those gathered now should be equally respected as those who gathered then.”

    “Grant Robertson's illegal interference sets a disturbing precedent and puts the Police in an impossible position; Trevor Mallard's decision to pressure media into not reporting on the events risks confirming the protestor's greatest fears. As unpopular as they may be in and around Wellington, the current protesters are just as entitled to peacefully assemble and protest as any other New Zealanders."

  • Netsafe Submission

  • Māori professor under investigation for views on mātauranga Māori

    Dr Garth Cooper has devoted his career to helping fellow Māori but he now finds himself in the gun over his opinions about science and indigenous knowledge. Graham Adams reports from the front lines of the culture wars.

    Prof Garth Cooper

    New Zealanders like their heroes talented and modest and preferably devoted to public service as well. Sir Edmund Hillary is the exemplar of that breed and very few have the mana he enjoys in our collective consciousness. Nevertheless, there are many others similarly talented and dedicated to the collective good but who go largely unnoticed outside their professional lives. One such is Professor Garth Cooper, who is suddenly in the news because he is under disciplinary investigation by the Royal Society Te Apārangi, the nation’s premier organisation promoting science and the humanities.Cooper is a Fellow of the society and — alongside eminent philosopher of science Robert Nola — risks being expelled from the nation’s most prestigious academic club.

    The reason for the investigation is that Cooper and Nola were among seven professors who wrote to the Listener in July questioning a government working group’s proposal to give mātauranga Māori (Māori knowledge) parity with what were described as other “bodies of knowledge” — “particularly Western / Pākehā epistemologies” — in the school science curriculum. In other words, Māori knowledge would effectively be given equal standing with physics, chemistry and biology.

    While the professors acknowledged “Indigenous knowledge is critical for the preservation and perpetuation of culture and local practices, and plays key roles in management and policy,” they concluded that, “In the discovery of empirical, universal truths, it falls far short of what we can define as science itself.” They also responded to the working group’s claim that science had been used as “a rationale for colonisation of Māori and the suppression of Māori knowledge”. The professors conceded that science — like literature and art — “has been used to aid colonisation” but stated: “Science itself does not colonise.”

    In the uproar that followed, their views were denounced by organisations including the Royal Society, the New Zealand Association of Scientists, and the Tertiary Education Union — as well as the professors’ own Vice-Chancellor, Dawn Freshwater. Notably, none of the professors’ critics defended mātauranga Māori as being scientific. Freshwater, for instance, lamented the “hurt and dismay” caused by the professors’ stance on “whether mātauranga Māori can be called science” but she never went beyond faintly praising it as a “distinctive and valuable knowledge system”.

    Dr Siouxsie Wiles and Dr Shaun Hendy — who have been highly visible in providing scientific backing to political judgments by the Prime Minister over the past 18 months during the Covid pandemic — went as far as to co-author an open letter, announcing they “categorically” disagreed with the professors’ views. Curiously for a pair of prominent scientists, they responded to the professors’ assertion that, “Science is helping us battle worldwide crises such as Covid, global warming, carbon pollution, biodiversity loss and environmental degradation” with the baffling statement: “Putting science on a pedestal gets us no further in the solution of these crises.” Dr Wiles also tweeted a request for reinforcements: “Calling all academics in Aotearoa New Zealand. Add your name to the open letter if you are also appalled by that letter claiming to defend science published last week in the NZ Listener. It's caused untold harm and hurt & points to major problems with some of our colleagues.” More than 2000 academics, students and alumni from all over New Zealand answered her call and signed (although how many had actually read the original letter to the Listener remains uncertain).

    Shortly before news of the Royal Society’s disciplinary action against Cooper and Nola broke, the Times Higher Education — the bible for hundreds of thousands of academics internationally — discussed the “unintended consequences” of the push for the “incorporation of Māori understandings into curricula”, and asked whether debate was being stifled. 

    On November 11, under the heading “Does the teaching of indigenous knowledge need to be examined?”, the magazine’s Asia-Pacific editor, John Ross, outlined the expanding role of Māori language and culture in New Zealand before interviewing some of the protagonists in the national discussion that erupted in the wake of the Listener letter. The Royal Society declined to answer Ross’s question of how it had decided the professors’ letter was not only “misguided” but caused “harm”. Others — no doubt mindful of possible risks to their academic careers — offered their opinions anonymously. Professor Cooper was happy to respond. He said that although he didn’t speak te reo — because his Maori grandmother “thought my brother and I should learn English” — he nevertheless knew “quite a lot” of words in the language. He went on to explain that the main reason he signed the Listener letter was because he was “concerned [that teaching] Māori kids about the colonising effects of science [would] lead to loss of opportunity”. 

    Crediting Ross Ihaka — a Māori mathematician who co-created the R open-source programming language — with producing “the most important thing that’s come out of New Zealand in the last 100 years”, Cooper worried about “young Māori scholars that would be the next Ross Ihaka basically missing out because they were told that science was a colonising influence of no interest to them.“ In response to this last assertion, a Māori academic — who had signed the open letter penned by Siouxsie Wiles and Shaun Hendy — emailed Cooper to ask if he “could please elaborate on how you came to the conclusion about what young Māori scholars want?”

    The Listener Letter

    In his reply (supplied to this writer), Professor Cooper thanked her for her query — and took the opportunity to “elaborate” as requested. His reply is worth quoting at length to give some idea of the calibre of the doctor and medical researcher the Royal Society is now considering expelling over his defence of scientific method: 

    “I have taught young Māori scholars in medicine and in science for more than 30 years; during that time, I talked to several hundred (I estimate more than 400) about their career aspirations. Before that, I served as a medical officer (MB ChB) in Rotorua (1979-1980) where I served as house officer for Sir Peter Tapsell) and then in Auckland (1981-1985), including several years in South Auckland (based in Middlemore Hospital), where I looked after many (i.e. a large number) of young Māori as patients). During my time in Auckland, along with Dr David Scott, I pioneered a programme for a new approach to health care delivery in Ōtara, where a large proportion of the patients were Māori (1983-1985). I wrote and delivered the first course in New Zealand for lay community health workers, who went on to receive recognition by the Mayor of South Auckland (1985). The place where this programme was developed was the Whaiora Marae, where I worked part-time along with my roles in Middlemore. In my role as Professor in Biochemistry and Medicine at the University of Auckland (1995-present), I have personally written courses for young Māori and Pasifika students — specifically as part of the Māori and Pacific Admission Scheme programme at the University of Auckland — perhaps you know of it? This was between ~1994-2006. These courses were credited with leading to a substantial increase in the overall pass rate…" 

    “I contributed, along with Profs Michael Walker and Linda Smith (~2005-2007), to the initial writing of the first (successful) application that led to the funding of Te Pai o Te Māramatanga, during which time I discussed their futures with numbers of Māori scholars who were entering into research careers through that programme. I have supervised young Māori and Pasifika scholars to completion of MSc and PhD programmes in science and in medicine. This involved in-depth interaction with these students over several years. They worked on my research programme on the origins and experimental therapeutics of type 2 diabetes, which I have undertaken over 40+ years because it is of major interest to Māori (kaupapa Māori research; vision Mātauranga). I have presented my teaching and research programmes to iwi at Hui a Tau, including Tainui/Waikato (with Dame Te Ata present), and to Te Rarawa and to Ngā Puhi. My teaching/research programmes were endorsed on each occasion."  

    “I was elected and served as a member of the Māori committee of the Health Research Council of New Zealand (for six years if I remember correctly), during which time I had the privilege of meeting with large numbers of young Māori at different marae from the deep South (Ngai Tahu) to the far North (Te Rarawa, Ngā Puhi). I served in a supervisory role on the Health Research Council for three more years, where my role was as an advocate for research in Māori Health. I also had the good fortune to be mentored during this time by people including Irihapeti Ramsden and Eruhapeti Murchie and was able to learn from them their views of the aspirations of young Māori. I also spent several years providing oversight and governance for a therapeutic intervention programme in the Bay of Plenty and East Cost of Te Ika-a-Maui for hepatitis B; this involved several thousand patients, most of whom were Māori, many of whom were young. I had the opportunity to learn from many of them at that time. Recently, I spent in-depth time with a young Māori MSc student who explained to me that he was very upset at Māori staff members who insisted on taking a one-sided view concerning his background, which was Pākehā (i.e. Ngāti Pākehā) as well as Māori, and that he was equally proud of both his Māori and non-Māori backgrounds. Finally, I also know what I think personally as one with Māori heritage (Ngāti Mahanga of Tainui/Waikato as well as Ngāti Pākehā) who underwent primary, secondary and tertiary education in New Zealand. In all, I estimate that I have provided substantive input and career guidance to as many as 5000 young Māori over 30+ years in these various roles. So this is how I know about young Māori and their aspirations.”

    Donate to the Academic Freedom Fund

    Astonishingly, this response to a specific query is not an exhaustive résumé of Professor Cooper’s work. As someone who is well acquainted with the extent of his contribution to medicine and health said: “There is much more he has done which he doesn’t discuss. Calling him ‘humble’ risks understatement.” So, we have ended up in a situation where a very distinguished Māori-Pākehā scientist who has helped thousands of Māori in their careers over several decades is being investigated by the Royal Society for what can only be described as holding a heretical view about the distinction between science and mātauranga Māori.

    Who knew an eminent scientist expressing an honestly held opinion — that mātauranga Māori, while valuable as a form of knowledge, is not science — would end up dealing with an Inquisition in 21st century New Zealand?



    Graham Adams has been involved in publishing in New Zealand for the past 40 years as a journalist, columnist, reviewer, magazine editor and subeditor. He has also worked as a book editor and screenwriter. He has a BA in psychology and French, and a MA in classical Greek, from the University of Auckland. He lives on Auckland’s North Shore with his partner, Megan. He believes strongly in free speech

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