TRANSCRIPT: Free Speech Union Podcast interview with Beth Johnson, Spokeswoman for Speak Up For Women, June 7 2021
David: Welcome everyone to the Free Speech Union Podcast. It’s David Cumin here as host, and I have with me Beth from Speak Up for Women. Welcome, Beth.
Beth: Hi David, thanks very much for having me on your show.
David: Thanks for coming on. Some of our listeners might not be entirely up to speed with what’s gone on and I wonder if you could just give us a brief background into why you're talking to the Free Speech Union?
Beth: Okay, thank you. So, Speak Up For Women is running a series of public talks throughout New Zealand. We're talking about a piece of legislation that's coming up before Parliament later this year, coming up for its second reading and we’ve got fundamental issues with this legislation. We’re really concerned about some of the implications it will have, particularly for women and girls. So the purpose of our public talks across the country is to discuss what those issues are, to raise awareness of the issues and the fact that this bill was being pushed through. It hasn't even gone to public consultation, for example, so it was really about a grassroots movement to make the general public aware and let them know that they could write to their MPs, or sign our petition. We're trying to get the bill sent back to select committee.
So that's the nature of why we’re having these talks. The content of the talks has come under attack and a lot of misinformation from our political opponents who don't want us talking about the issues with this law because they want it to be passed.
Speak Up For Women actually formed in 2018, when we first got wind of the bill. It’s the Birth, Deaths and Marriages bill, and within it, inserted at select committee, was a controversial clause that would allow people to change the sex on their birth certificate by a statutory declaration.
The current process requires people to satisfy the Family Court with medical evidence before they can change their birth certificate. So the current law has safeguarding in it. The new law would do away with all of that. This clauses was inserted at select committee after the first reading of the bill, after public submissions were closed, so there was no opportunity for the New Zealand public to discuss that clause, or the implications of it.
So that's why we formed in 2018, to fight this bill and to actually put pressure on the Government to follow proper democratic process and send the bill back to select committee. Tracy Martin was the Minister in charge of the Department of Internal Affairs at the time, and so this was her bill, and following our campaign she actually sought legal advice from Crown Law, and they agreed with what we've been saying that the bill hadn't followed democratic process.
And also, which was our main concern, that sex-self identification would conflate the idea of biological sex with this contested theory of gender identity. Conflate those two concepts and law, and that would have knock on effects to women's rights that are protected with a number of different pieces of the legislation. For example, the Human Rights Act allows for single-sex services and spaces, scholarships and opportunities.
David: So, if I hear you correctly, you're wanting to talk about a bill that is before Parliament?
Beth: That’s absolutely right, yes.
David: Just to be completely open and frank about the Free Speech Union position — we don't have a position on the nitty-gritty of that bill. Clearly you guys are pushing for your beliefs, but really you want to discuss a bill before Parliament, and you're not being allowed to do that, is that right?
Beth: That’s right, so we want to discuss the issues with this bill. We booked a number of council venues across the country. And those venues caved to the demands of a few activists coordinated from Auckland, and then we've been de-platformed from these venues.
David: So, let's dig into that because I think this is, this is really where the rubber meets the road as far as the Free Speech Union is concerned. There is a group of people who want to discuss a bill before our Parliament, in a very democratic way. And there have been public spaces that have said you're not allowed to use them to do that. What reason has been given to you for that?
Beth: There are different reasons from different councils, but primarily, if you just look at Christchurch — they talk about us potentially being in breach of their policy around community, “making all communities feel welcome”, and they spoke about health and safety concerns. Now, there haven't been any credible, or any threats at all of violence.
David: So there's been no threats of violence, but they're saying health and safety is the issue so what health and safety concerns did they raise?
Beth: Well, the inference is around the health and safety of their staff and the library users. We have to assume that they're talking about their mental health and safety, of hearing feminist women discuss ideas that they might not agree with.
David: So just to be clear, Beth. You don't pose a physical risk to anyone? You haven’t, in previous meetings, had weapons or violence or any sort of underground fighting rings that you've been organising? You haven't been harming anyone physically?
Beth: (laughs) No, I'm just a mum, I don't I don't go around harming people. I’m just a woman talking about women’s rights. We’re committed to peace, peaceful action. Speak Up For Women is all women. There are no violent women in our group. We're not violent at all, and we respect people's right to peacefully protest. So, there's no concerns that we would perpetrate violence. In fact in our meeting did go ahead in Christchurch — not at the library, but ironically at the Woolston Club, which until recently was the Woolston Working Men's Club, which is quite ironic to host a feminist meeting. We had maybe five to eight peaceful protesters there. They were protesting outside, we invited them inside to listen to our meeting. And they came in under the condition that they wouldn't interrupt, but that they could ask any questions they wanted at the end. So they did that and they sat quietly and they listened, and then we had a really healthy debate. We didn't agree. But it was exactly the sort of public meeting that we'd hoped it would be.
David: So, there was no violence. There were no threats of violence. You invited these people in to have a discussion, there was a discussion and a debate about a bill before our Parliament. No one needed an ambulance at the end of it. It was a respectful discussion in New Zealand.
Beth: There was some high emotion from their side. They were very young, they actually had their teacher with them. They were quite — yeah, there was a bit of emotion, but it was an entirely respectful discussion. Absolutely no physical violence. I think maybe I heard one swear word towards the end. That was it. So, yeah, that's the sort of meeting that I would expect our councils to be able to facilitate quite comfortably.
David: Let's just be clear about that, Christchurch City Council banned you from the library is that, is that right?
Beth: Yeah, they banned us from all Christchurch Libraries, under the spurious guise of the health and safety of the staff. And the thing is, we’d booked a private meeting room. So no one even had to hear us, if they didn't want to be in that room.
David: Well, this is deeply concerning. And obviously, the Free Speech Union has been fighting a battle against Auckland Council for not allowing those two Canadians to come and talk. And in that case, there were threats of some protest activity that possibly could have maybe involved some, you know, bad people, and one of the things that we argued quite strongly was the thug’s veto should not be allowed to stop people from expressing their ideas. But in your case, it sounds even worse than that because there was no credible threat of violence at all in any way shape or form.
Beth: That's right, there's been no threats of violence that we’ve seen and we’ve asked the council if there have been, they haven't been able to provide any threats of violence.
A few people had made it clear that there would be a protest, which we fully support. So, no, that's totally spurious, and in fact the Auckland Council has done similar to Christchurch. Not banned us outright, but we booked a central Auckland venue for the talk, on Ponsonby/K Road called Studio One. We’d been told by our supporters at our last meeting that was moved by Auckland Council out to Western Springs that it wasn't a convenient location, a lot of them would prefer central where there are transport links. So we booked Studio One. And after asking us what our content was going to be and going back and forth, and asking us if we'd be prepared to move, we said “no, look, we really need to be central for this reason.” Auckland Council told us “No, sorry we are cancelling the booking, we are moving out to Western Springs again.”
And again, the reason was, health and safety concerns and the concerns of managing protest action. So to us, it seems like this health and safety argument is some sort of get out of jail free card that councils are using, when they don't want to uphold the Bill of Rights for certain people.
David: Yeah, this is basically why we formed, and why we're continuing the battle. Especially after the Court of Appeal pointed out that council-run facilities need to pay attention to the Bill of Rights. To see the thug’s veto being used and these spurious health and safety concerns raised is deeply concerning. Especially when it's a group of people who want to discuss a bill before Parliament. This is part of our democratic process and this is a fight that I think we need to have to enable free and democratic discussion of ideas. You mentioned Christchurch, you mentioned Auckland. Were there any other councils that banned you from facilities?
Beth: Yes. Directly after Christchurch Council banned us from the library, within days, Dunedin Council had announced that they were cancelling our booking. Dunedin had never even asked her what the nature of our event was. They hadn't asked us about the content, or any input into any health and safety considerations. So they literally, without even speaking to us, cancelled our booking. And they used similar reasons; “Health and safety concerns for our libraries, and staff. We strive to ensure our libraries offer an environment where all members of our community can feel safe and welcome.”
David: Asterisk, unless you’re Speak Up for Women members of the community.
Beth: Unless you’re women wanting to discuss legislation that will impact women.
David: It sounds like you've been entirely reasonable the whole time, but surely if there is to be protest activity against you, that's reason to not shut you down, but try and deal with the protesters, surely?
Beth: Yeah, and as I said, Speak Up For Women, we support the right to peaceful protest. We think it’s a really important part of democracy. So if people are gathering to peacefully protest, they should be facilitated to do that. And obviously it becomes a police matter if it becomes violent or you know, the crowds are too big that they need traffic management or whatever. But all of those things are manageable, and definitely shouldn't be cause to shut down public meetings about a piece of legislation.
David: I completely agree, and again this is why we appealed the High Court ruling and why we're going to the Supreme Court on the Auckland case. Unfortunately, it sounds like you guys might be headed down a similar track. And it's really up to the courts to be very clear about the responsibilities and the roles of public venues. We believe, obviously, that they should allow people to use the space to discuss important things, or not important things, in a peaceful way. And shouldn’t show favour to anyone in particular or any ideology in particular.
Beth: No, absolutely. And it just goes to show that it's an important issue, that people are prepared to protest. You know, it just goes to show that it's an issue that New Zealand is passionate about, and should be discussed, and shouldn't be shunted off into the private sector to, you know, hope that we can find a venue that won't cave to bullying.
David: Absolutely, and I think the other thing is that the thug’s veto is, is something that if it's given an inch it'll take a yard. If it's given a little bit it’ll take the rest. As soon as you allow one group to shut down another group that they disagree with, then the floodgates open. And all of those mixed metaphors are to say we should be upholding the right of everyone to voice their opinion peacefully.
Beth: Absolutely, I mean, how would we even have a functioning democracy if we can’t? I mean, every political party talking about anything could be subject to a protest and often are. So citizens talking about legislation should be able to go ahead.
David: Yeah, absolutely. So you're fighting the good fight. Unfortunately, you had to find an alternate venue in Christchurch but you’re fighting the good fight now in other places. You said that Nelson was a particularly interesting case, what's happening in Nelson?
Beth: Well it’s interesting in as much that during the time that Christchurch and Dunedin and Auckland Council were all going back and forth and trying to work out, you know how to cancel us, Nelson was doing similar. The Mayor wanted to know what we were going to talk about and we went back and forth with them. And they came to the conclusion that we had a right to speak at the venue. And now a couple of Nelson councillors have come out really strongly and said that they’re embarrassed and disgusted by that decision, but what it shows us is that there are people within the management of Nelson council that actually realise that they can't trample on the Bill of Rights of certain groups within the community. So it's interesting to us that Nelson — clearly they don't want to, I would say based on what some of the councillors are saying, but Nelson Council itself is allowing the booking to stand, and so we will be talking in the Trafalgar Hall in Nelson, this Wednesday, the 9th of June. And led by one of those particular councillors, there is going to be a large protest outside, but it does look like the planning of that is peaceful. They're calling it and peaceful protest. So hopefully Nelson can be another example of how to facilitate it properly.
David: I mean it's fantastic, as far as free speech goes, the fact that there is a councillor who opposes your ideas enough to lead or participate in a protest outside, but still allows you to speak, is exactly what we want to see happen. Much like your conversation in Christchurch you mentioned, right.
Beth: That's exactly right and I do hope that Nelson goes the same way as Christchurch because it was really productive and successful. I mean, this Nelson Councillor does want to change the policy of the council so that they can exclude groups like ours in the future, so definitely not trying to uphold the Bill of Rights, but someone within the council itself, at the management level knows that they can't cancel us because some people don't like us.
David: That's what the laws are for, right, it's to keep people, hopefully in check, even with their own prejudices and biases. Have you had any positive or negative response from councillors in any other cities? We’ve only really talked about the libraries that have shut you down, but have the councillors waded into the debate on either side?
Beth: No, Nelson was the first time I've actually seen the councillors quoted in the media. We're actually waiting, we’ve sent some Official Information Act requests for Christchurch council. We're trying to find out how far up and to how many councillors, the decision to bar us from the library actually went. So that will be interesting.
David: What about MPs, have there been any MPs that have spoken out for your right to speak or praise the council's for banning you?
Beth: Both Judith Collins of the National Party and David Seymour from ACT have spoken out for the principle of free speech and for our right to speak. Neither of them have commented either way on if they share our position, same as the Free Speech Union, but they support our right to speak. I haven't heard a peep out of Labour on this issue. It seems like they’ve just put their heads below the parapet. But there have certainly been lower-level elected officials that have said things on various occasions that I can think of, people like Richard Hill in Auckland, for example. But yes, absolute silence from the MPs on that side of the fence, which is really concerning given that free speech was always a bastion of the left.
David: Yeah, I agree with you, I think that is deeply concerning. This should be an issue that has bipartisan support, and to see it apparently turning into only one side of the political spectrum, especially as you say when it's traditionally been the left that has been fighting for the right of people to express their ideas, particularly in protests. That is deeply concerning. And the other thing that I think is doubly concerning about it is that the makeup of our government is such that they're the ones passing bills at the moment. And one of those proposed pieces of legislation is around hate speech. And if no one's talking about the right of, your group, for example, or other groups to freely express their ideas… Is there a hint that this might be “hate speech”, that you're discussing a bill before Parliament, and in which case, what kind of legal ramifications might that have in the future and chilling, the thought that you might, discuss a bill in a non-favourable way.
Beth: Absolutely, and the implications of that hate speech bill. We've been accused of being a hate group, and hate speech. It's been said. And so it's not a far stretch to think that that hate speech law could be used against feminists like us talking about legislation.
David: I want to unpack that a little bit with you very briefly, because I'm not sure that all of our listeners would be completely familiar with why you’re branded a hate group, and what possibly hateful things you might be saying. So perhaps you could maybe strongman the argument on the other side. I know that there's been terms like TERF, that's been thrown around, you know, all of those kind of ‘ists’ that people get labelled with. Why would your group in particular, be seen as hateful, do you think?
Beth: So, we believe that biological sex is real and that it matters in certain circumstances in the law. And for example, the Human Rights Act allows female people to have female-only services and spaces, so thinking about like. female prisons or changing rooms, or girls schools, or intimate care for the elderly, or you know, a number of scenarios where biological sex actually matters. And we want to talk about how this piece of legislation will allow anyone, at any time, at any stage of their life, for any reason to change the sex on their birth certificate and therefore be treated in the eyes of the law, as if they were actually a female person, and access to those spaces and services accordingly. We want to talk about the impacts of that. There have been no impact assessments done, or anything like that.
On the other side of the fence, you have lobby groups that say “trans women are women”, and should be and, they are if say they are. And they don't need to make any physical appearance changes or bodily changes, they literally are women, and that it's hateful to even question their identity.
So that's where the “hate” comment comes in, that we're talking about existing laws and existing rights and material reality of mammalian sex being biomorphic — so, there literally are just males or females and that that's a fact and that's science. And on the other side, you've got this idea of everyone has a gender identity and, you know, some people might be in a female body or a male body but they are actually the opposite sex and should be that way if they say they are. I don't know if I've explained it very well, but that's where that conflict is.
David: If I understand what you're saying, there's a group of people who feel that you're hateful because you are not accepting their version of themselves or their reality. They feel like they're in a different body and should be able to have that affirmed by society, and you're saying there are reasons why we shouldn't allow that, and their view of that is that it's hateful towards them. Is that a fair summation?
Beth: Yes, except that we would affirm that, and be fine with that in most circumstances. We support gender nonconformity. People should be free to dress however they want, to be called whatever they want, and that should have no impact on their rights to housing and employment. And they should be accepted on the face of who they say they are in almost every situation, except in a very few specific circumstances that are protected on the Human Rights Act, that allow female people to have female-only spaces. So we're not actually denying their rights to be themselves, we're just saying, when it comes to a representative position reserved for females, that your biological sex should be what’s looked at. Or when it comes to being placed in a prison, we should be acknowledging that a male who self identifies as female at 40, and has committed violent sexual crimes, should not be placed in a female prison, because he's changed his birth certificate and he’s now female. That’s it. It’s not actually about restricting people's lives on a day to day basis. In fact, most of us are gender non-conforming. A lot of us are lesbians. It's a bit more nuanced than it's being made out to look.
David: Sure, and this is why I think it's important to dig down because I think it's useful to understand what ‘hate’ is in the context of this discussion. The other term that gets thrown around that some of our listeners might not be fully au fait with is ‘TERF’, and I wonder if you could unpack that a little bit as a related kind of slur that's been used, and also one that increasingly seems in the social media spheres of our modern lives to be something that is branding someone is a hateful type of person. So what does TERF stand for and briefly what, what does it kind of mean in this debate?
Beth: Yeah, I might actually do that the other way around. So what it's meant in this debate is… and it actually makes me feel a bit sick just talking about it, because the amount of hatred that is put behind the word is astounding. So if your listeners want to see what I'm talking about, they can go to terfisaslur.com, and you'll see the abuse that women get. And ‘TERF’ is being used as a way of creating this group, that it’s then okay to denigrate and abuse. So TERFs are these hateful, evil women and it doesn't matter what you say or do, they deserve it, because they’re awful. And then any woman who questions sex-self identification legislation or any aspect of this law is called a TERF, and automatically terrified into silence because they don't want to be this awful thing. So it really is a slur operating in the truest sense of the word. It's a term of abuse and it's terrifying.
So that's what it is. What it actually means is “trans-exclusionary radical feminist”. “Radical feminism” is a school of feminism that I personally don't subscribe to. And “trans-exclusionary” means excluding trans women from the definition of woman. So that's what it is. And even radical feminists don't exclude trans people, because they include trans-identified females or trans men in their feminism, and so it's not actually about being anti-trans at all. It's actually about people who are not trans who would abuse this type of legislation. So it’s just a misnomer. Yeah, and it's awful.
David: As you've just described it sounds like it is really used to try and smear people and silence them essentially out of embarrassment or fear or making you feel sick.
Beth: It's all of the above. Yeah. It works. I mean, for every one of us that speaks publicly, there's at least a hundred too scared to talk even, even in their places of work and their friendship circles. You don't want to be called a TERF.
David: No, and it's so easy these days to throw terms around that have such a chilling effect, and keep people silenced. As it sounds like it is reasonably straightforward for councils at the moment to decide that they don't like what someone's going to say and to keep you out of their venues. Beth, you're fighting the good fight. Unfortunately, Christchurch didn't work out, but then it did. On the plus side, it looks like you're fighting in Auckland, you're continuing to fight in Dunedin and Nelson is going to go ahead. We wish you all the best with that. We are standing beside you to fight for your right to speak, and we will continue to do that.
Beth: Thank you.
David: We will keep everyone posted, and we'd love to have you back at some point to give us an update on how the rest of the speaking tour went.
Beth: Absolutely, and I’d just like to say — sorry to shamelessly plug the tour — but if any of your supporters want to stand in solidarity with our right to speak, even if they don't agree with us, I'm sure they're not scared of hearing ideas. Check out our website speakupforwomen.nz, our speaking tour schedule is on there, we've got new dates coming up to Hamilton, Tauranga as well. We’re still in Palmerston North.
David: Wonderful, thank you so much for joining us, Beth. And thank you everyone for listening.
Beth: Thank you.