Futurelearning

Free speech - it’s complicated

Canadian right-wing commentators Lauren Southern and Stefan Molyneux arrived in New Zealand to find their one public speaking engagement had been cancelled by Auckland City Council. The council denied them access to council-owned venues, citing the offensive and harmful content of their views as well as concerns for public safety. The event was moved to a private venue, the PowerStation, but then cancelled for good when the owners of the PowerStation found out who the speakers were.

The episode raises ongoing questions about free speech, partly because a group of putatively neutral politicians and others, the hastily assembled Free Speech Coalition, intends to take the council to court, alleging breaches of the Bill of Rights and Human Rights Acts. The members of the Free Speech Coalition are eager to emphasise that they do not want to defend Southern’s and Molyneux’s actual opinions: they either reject those opinions or claim not to know what they are. For the Free Speech Coalition, the principle is the council should not be banning people who want to speak. 

The legal battle will (or perhaps won’t) play out, but behind it is a deeper question about political morality. Was the council justified in preventing Southern and Molyneux from speaking in a council-owned venue? Is the Free Speech Coalition correct in accusing the council of violating the principle of free speech?

In a familiar way of telling the story, the council was faced with a classic conflict between the principle of free speech and the harm speech can cause. On the one side is the individual right to free speech and on the other side is the social good – or at least the social good as seen by Auckland City Council. Looking at the basis of the right to free speech, however, the question becomes more complicated.

Three separate considerations underlie the liberal democratic value of free speech. First, there is human dignity: humans create and express themselves as autonomous agents by forming their own views of the world and by communicating with others. Second, there is democracy: a thriving democracy requires a range of competing perspectives, all to be judged by the people and none to be exempt from criticism. Third, there is a healthy suspicion of the powerful: the state needs to be kept in check, and we should be cautious about letting anyone use their power to decide who should be allowed to say what.

These considerations do not give reason to protect all speech. To adapt a venerable philosophical example, suppose someone gets onto a public bus and starts to describe loudly and in detail the various kinds of vomit she has produced over her lifetime. It is perfectly acceptable for the bus driver to tell her to shut up or get off – not because her speech does any real harm, but because it is annoying and serves no purpose, and because she has every ability to discuss her history of vomiting elsewhere, if she can find people who want to listen. 

What was lost, really, was access to a particular transaction in a particular place: a paid political event in a council-owned building. 

Some speech, that is to say, does not matter for anyone’s innate human dignity, does not contribute to democratic debate and does not present concerns about the use of power to silence dissent. Sometimes the principle of freedom of speech does not apply. Does it apply to the council’s decision in this case?

The first and obvious point is that, regardless of the council’s decision, Southern and Molyneux have no problem expressing themselves and making their views known to New Zealanders. Their books are available online and their various speeches and shows and recordings of their events are easily found on YouTube. They do not want for self-expression or the ability to communicate.

A better case can be made on behalf of their potential audience. There were people who wanted to attend the event, to see the speakers, and to take photos, buy books and talk about politics, and there was an organiser ready to pay for the venue. It is understandable these people would feel their sincerely-held political views are being singled out, and that they are victims of a government that does not want their opinions heard.

Even there, however, the council’s move was not really against speech, in the respects that matter for the principle of free speech. Views of the kind held by Southern and Molyneux can still be discussed and disseminated and can be part of the political debate. What was lost, really, was access to a particular transaction in a particular place: a paid political event in a council-owned building. 

The most crucial concern, in the end, is about council overreach. When the council decides to cancel this event, we might say, it sets a precedent: it licenses itself and future councils to apply an ideological test to events to be held in its buildings. (And, as was learned in this case, moving to a private venue instead is not always so easy.) The strength of that concern, however, depends on the council’s reasons for making its decision, and to assess those reasons we need to look at what Southern and Molyneux actually say.

Molyneux styles himself as a philosopher to the people and a source of uncompromising scientifically-informed rationality. He defends a radical but not unusual form of economic libertarianism, but is best known for his views about race and intelligence: he thinks there are mental differences between races, people of different races are suited to different kinds of mental tasks, and members of some races are, by and large, simply less intelligent than others. While he asserts constantly that he is repeating what scientists have told him, his beliefs are false: he shows little interest in or awareness of the best research on the nature of ‘race’ or on accurate measures of and influences on intelligence.

If Southern’s and Molyneux’s Auckland event had been held, it would probably have included a good deal of legitimate right-leaning political discussion, but also the expression of some unfounded and prejudiced views derogatory of vulnerable people the council represents. 

Southern is more of a nationalist. Her main concern is with the defence of (as she sees it) Western civilisation, against such things as Islam, immigration, feminism, the acceptance of transgender people, and movements for postcolonial justice. She tells some good and affecting stories about incidents of injustice, but from there her arguments are vague and difficult to follow. Most striking are her throwaway lines and her stunts: she gives cutting denunciations of “the left” and of “political correctness”, supports efforts to prevent refugees from being saved at sea, and filmed herself purporting to change her legal gender. 

Southern and Molyneux rail against identity politics, but they are also pretty good at it. Their audiences, to judge from the evidence on YouTube, are made up mostly of young white men, and it is easy to see much of their material as directed at making that audience feel good about its identity. When Southern recently arrived in Australia, she wore a t-shirt saying “It’s okay to be white”. 

If Southern’s and Molyneux’s Auckland event had been held, it would probably have included a good deal of legitimate right-leaning political discussion, but also the expression of some unfounded and prejudiced views derogatory of vulnerable people the council represents. 

Given the council’s values and mission, you can see why it would want to take a stand, and to send a message, as part of its commitment to racial equality, cultural understanding, equality for women, and the rights of transgender people. And so long as that is the council’s motivation – as opposed to its setting out to harm a political rival or to squash dissent – it should not raise concerns about state power determining which opinions may be heard.

As I see it, then, whether Southern and Molyneux should have been allowed to hold their event in a council-owned building is a question of policy, not of fundamental rights. (Whether cancelling the event was good policy, given the publicity it has brought to the speakers, is of course another matter.)

The main point, in any case, is the details are significant. Genuinely to have freedom of speech as their cause, members of the Free Speech Coalition need to say why it contributes to New Zealand’s democratic debate to have these particular views expressed in a council-owned venue, or they need to say why the council’s motivations pose a threat to important political speech in future. They need to pay some attention to the people whose speech they are defending. It is not as simple as saying that every view needs to be expressed, wherever anyone wants to express it.

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