Bryce Edwards: The left wing case for political freedoms

Bryce Edwards examines the left-wing case of protecting and extending political freedoms in order to bring about a more socially just world

The political left is on the side of censorship and suppression of free speech; the political right is in favour of free speech and political freedoms. That’s the unfortunate dichotomy that has become established in many peoples’ minds over the free speech debates of the last couple of months.

But it’s simply not true. At least not historically. The political left has actually been the traditional supporter of establishing political freedoms, extending them, and then protecting them from encroachment – quite often from the political right. Karl Marx himself was a supporter of a free press and viewed censorship as a tool to oppress the powerless. It’s only in more recent years that the two ideological camps appear to have switched sides.

There’s always been a very strong reason for the left to favour as much free speech and political freedom as possible: it advantages them, as well as generally helping marginalised and oppressed groups advance their political interests. Political freedoms have allowed those who are most disadvantaged to do something about inequality, discrimination, and oppression.

Whether it’s the civil rights movement in the US, gay rights movements everywhere, or the anti-Springbok Tour movement in 1981, they’ve all been helped by the ability to organise freely and speak freely.

The 1960s and 1970s provide a good example of how progressive movements were able to utilise political freedoms to advance their causes. All over the western world, including in New Zealand, university campuses became central places where new ideas were shared and groups were able to look at the big problems in society and then mobilise. From the anti-war movement, to gender equality, and anti-racism, students and academics were able to start “changing the world”.

Of course, historically, it’s been the political left and marginalised groups that have suffered the most from clampdowns on political freedoms. Socialists, unionists, and other groups fighting for liberation and equality have had their speech suppressed by the state or the media.

Classic examples in New Zealand include anti-war radicals jailed for speaking out during the first world war. Some of these radicals went on to form the New Zealand Labour Party and even become MPs.

Our universities haven’t always been havens of free speech for progressive thinkers either. For example, in 1932 a University of Auckland lecturer, John Beaglehole, was fired for mentioning Karl Marx in a lecture. Fast forward to 2011, and leftwing Maori activist, and MP, Hone Harawira had a talk cancelled at the University of Auckland.

Suppressing union speech

Workers and unions have a long history of state repression. This was most obvious during the 1951 watersiders lockout, when it was illegal to distribute pro-union pamphlets.

In recent years, there have been countless examples around the world of the left having its speech supressed. Sometimes this occurs under the guise of “hate speech”. For example, in 2015 in France, 12 Palestinian activists were convicted of hate speech for wearing T-shirts which read “Long live Palestine, boycott Israel”. France’s highest court upheld the judgment.

There’s an important lesson to be learnt from the 1990s clampdown on pornography which often involved feminists – sometimes working with Christian conservatives – campaigning to empower the state to ban pornography. Often this led to rather reactionary outcomes. For example, in Canada, when tighter restrictions were adopted on pornography, controversially, the first ban was used to close down a small lesbian magazine.

From Auckland's ban to Massey's ban

The more subjective and restrictive the limits of free speech are made, the more likely they are to be used against ideas and targets that were not originally intended. It took only a week for Massey’s Vice Chancellor to go from publicly supporting Auckland Council’s ban on far-right speakers to banning an ex-leader of the National Party from her campus. Many who supported the first immediately condemned the second but, in terms of content, it isn’t clear at all where and why one is acceptable and the other not.

Principles are far more robust and defendable than subjective views on what is “acceptable”. Only a few decades ago much of what we now see, read and view on a daily basis was routinely censored and denied public expression. In a few more decades societal norms are likely to be very different again, but the left cannot assume this will always be progressive change. There are too many historical (and current) examples of liberal societies rapidly being transformed into repressive regimes. The first casualty is always, freedom of expression.

Those calling for restrictions seem to forget that they won’t always be in power, and the climate of suppression they create encourages an opponent to use the same tactics against you.

The temptation for the left to support the state, or even businesses, in suppressing the activities of rightwing or reactionary activists or speakers, on the basis of their awful politics should be avoided, if for no other reason than it is likely to produce a climate or rules in which the left and marginalised groups are further marginalised.

Take the wider view

So it’s time for the political left, and generally all those in favour of liberation struggles and the fight against injustice, to reclaim the tools of political freedoms, including free speech. Yes, there are all sorts of reasons why these freedoms are too limited, and why there are other societal factors that inhibit free speech, but these are not good reasons to ditch the traditional leftwing’s embrace of liberties.

It’s also time for the political left to stop being so obsessed with the likes of Southern and Molyneux, or of Don Brash, in the debate about free speech. Yes, they might benefit from these blanket freedoms, but that’s a small price to pay in terms of the bigger advantages that political freedoms bring to the struggles for liberation and equality.

Newsroom is powered by the generosity of readers like you, who support our mission to produce fearless, independent and provocative journalism.


Newsroom does not allow comments directly on this website. We invite all readers who wish to discuss a story or leave a comment to visit us on Twitter or Facebook. We also welcome your news tips and feedback via email: Thank you.