Free speech: From Charlie Hebdo to Don Brash

by Graham Adams / 27 September, 2018
Opinion.
RelatedArticlesModule - free speech

With Massey University backing its vice-chancellor over de-platforming the former National leader, the free speech debate has fired up again.

It all seemed so easy back in January 2015 to be in favour of free speech. Aggrieved Islamists killed 12 people at the Paris offices of Charlie Hebdo and suddenly we were all Charlies, all horrified and appalled by the murders. Huge rallies around the world — under “Je suis Charlie” banners — condemned the slaughter and reaffirmed Western democratic principles of free speech.

In January that year, John Key happily stood in Parliament in solidarity with the French satirists and described the killings in Paris as an attack on “democratic principles of freedom of speech and expression”.

Nevertheless, just a few months later, his government — with Labour’s support — passed the Harmful Digital Communications Act. It was intended to counter cyber-bullying but also opened the door to anyone aggrieved by a cartoon, satire or news article to claim they had suffered “serious emotional distress” and demand it be removed, possibly as a prelude to court action and criminal penalties.

Predictions that the law would be used to try to stymie legitimate criticism were proved accurate this month when Sir Ray Avery took a complaint to internet regulator Netsafe about Newsroom’s investigation into his charitable medical programmes. He said the reports had caused him serious emotional distress and amounted to digital harm. He wanted Newsroom to consider removing them and to agree not to write any more about him. 

National politicians — and Jacinda Ardern — have insisted the bill was not intended to be used in this way but lawyer Stephen Franks was far from convinced. He tweeted: “Truth should be an absolute defence under this [HDC] law. Omitting it made it obvious and certain that elites would misuse it to gag and suppress exposure. National’s Justice Min and Att Gen should hang their heads in shame.” 

The Wicked Campers debacle 

A year later, it was made obvious yet again that John Key’s enthusiasm for defending free speech after the Charlie Hebdo massacre was a passing thing. In 2016, he backed a posse of his female ministers — Paula Bennett, Louise Upston and Maggie Barry — who were hot on the trail of Wicked Campers and the smutty jokes painted on their vans-for-hire.

Bennett, who led the charge, showed her understanding of what free speech means was a little… well… unformed. When Toby Manhire interviewed her for The Spinoff and asked if the campaign against Wicked Campers was a free-speech issue, she replied: “It’s not a campaign that I embarked on lightly, because I agree with freedom of speech, and I don’t get morally outraged at things that some other people do. I can usually see the funny side of something, and if I can understand where it’s come from then I can get there. But I do think as a society we also need to have a bottom line. And so what adults do in their own time and with their own money and their own views, I have pretty much no opinion on, and don’t care, to be honest. It’s when it’s actually affecting society and children that I start getting a different view of it.”

No matter that Bennett didn’t make much sense. No one much cared about fighting for free speech on behalf of Wicked Campers. Who wants to stand up for a business whose marketing is largely via the kind of grubby humour enthusiastically endorsed by 14-year-old schoolboys?

After a flurry of coverage, the media lost interest in the jihad against Wicked Campers. No one made comparisons between Wicked Campers’ jokes and those published by Charlie Hebdo, which regularly produced vulgar cartoons that infuriated and grievously offended Christians and Muslims (among others) in equal measure. No one pointed out that, compared to Charlie Hebdo’s assaults on religious sensibilities and public prudishness, Wicked Campers’ vans were tame to the point of being anodyne.

The debate over same-sex marriage, for instance, led the French weekly to signal its support by lampooning Christianity with a cartoon of Jesus having anal intercourse with his father (the heavenly one, not Joseph) and with the Holy Spirit impaled in Jesus’s butt. 

The debate over wearing of burqas in public saw a cover sketch of a naked Muslim woman with a tail of cloth poking out of her bum, above the slogan: “Yes to wearing the burqa… on the inside.”

When the "free speech" circus came to town

In New Zealand, “free speech” has long been a slogan that few have cared to analyse too deeply. Then, in 2018, everything changed. A visit by Lauren Southern and Stefan Molyneux was announced and the free speech-debate burst into life with Auckland mayor Phil Goff saying they wouldn’t be hosted at the Bruce Mason Centre or any other council-owned venue because of the “repugnant” nature of their views (a reason later amended to be about security concerns). 

Now, nearly two months since the Canadians left New Zealand after a brief visit — having failed to secure a venue where they could deliver an evening’s entertainment for their fans — the debate is still raging.

In fact, it would probably have been better for those opposing them to have worn their outrage on the inside too. Opponents of the provocateurs scored a Pyrrhic victory by denying them a platform in Auckland but at the cost of giving them huge publicity.

The pair ended up on national television on TVNZ’s current affairs show Sunday, after a whirlwind of controversy. So, instead of addressing a small audience at the Bruce Mason Centre or at the Powerstation, and remaining unknown to the vast majority of New Zealanders, Southern and Molyneux ended up speaking to tens of thousands via one television programme alone.

They also easily managed to make Newshub’s political hitman Paddy Gower look like an intellectual featherweight when he wandered into an interview with them. When Molyneux detailed a hierarchy of races according to IQ — starting at the top with East Asians — Gower cut him off, saying he was “going off on a rant”. 

His performance was so embarrassing that he felt obliged to explain later to sympathetic panellists on The Project why he had been so thoroughly owned by the Canadian couple. He put it down to their “nit-pickery” — the kind of term Robert Muldoon was fond of using to dismiss critics — rather than his own intellectual inadequacies when faced with a pair of fairly underwhelming gadflies. 

Gower obviously believed he was on the side of the angels in opposing Southern and Molyneux but, more alarmingly, so did the Prime Minister. Fresh from maternity leave, Jacinda Ardern asserted — confidently but without a shred of evidence — that New Zealanders are “hostile to their views”. She appeared to approve of them being denied a platform.

That Don Brash speech 

The free-speech debate might have fizzled out then, but days after Molyneux and Southern left Auckland, Massey University’s vice-chancellor, Jan Thomas, cancelled a booking for Don Brash to talk to students of politics at Massey University’s Manawatu campus.

Thomas cited security concerns after she said threats had been made — apparently giving in to the “thug’s veto”. In short, anyone can prevent someone speaking in public if they threaten violence against the venue, those attending, or the speakers themselves.

Unfortunately for VC Thomas, universities are subject to the Official Information Act, and blogger David Farrar was able to show through a string of emails he obtained that Thomas had wanted to find a way to stop Brash speaking at Massey well before security concerns became apparent — simply because she didn’t like his views on Maori issues.

Suppressing the antics of Wicked Campers and two lightweight Canadians are one thing; denying a platform to a former Reserve Bank governor and leader of the National opposition — who came close to being democratically elected as PM in 2005 — is entirely another. Even some of those who had supported denying Southern and Molyneux a platform have admitted it had been a mistake to do the same thing to Brash.

So, once again, de-platforming has backfired on those self-appointed censors among our elites who imagine they can tell others what to read, see or hear. It has provided potent ammunition for all those who already see universities as enforcers of a leftist ideology that largely exist to tutor students in how to spot racism and sexism, and far from being the centres of rational, dispassionate inquiry that universities should be.

Battle lines are being drawn. Extraordinarily, Massey’s University Council last week backed its vice-chancellor, as did the Tertiary Education Union. It’s hard to see that this is a wise move for the university or the union. 

Not least, the council has put itself in the unusual position of supporting someone who, at best, misled the public and them.

In fact, it is shaping up to be a blunder of monumental proportions. Already, wags are asking the university to publish a list of what views it deems acceptable and those considered to be heretical or blasphemous. It’s pretty obvious the latter would be a very long one.

The bigger problem, of course, for those intent on shutting down debate is the disaffection it will cause among the many people who don’t like being told what to think or say — including those who are generally sympathetic to liberal views on race and gender.

The left should worry that the backlash over its efforts to crimp free speech will harm the prospects of left-leaning political parties in New Zealand — principally Labour and the Greens — as, indeed, some reckon has happened in the US with the election of Trump, and in the UK with Brexit.

As Clive James wrote years ago after watching Jane Fonda on BBC television: “Having brought the war in Vietnam to an end, she is justifiably still awestricken at the change in her personality which made it all possible. It goes without saying – or rather it goes with a lot of saying – that the details of how she changed from a sex object into a political demiurge are of prime concern to the world.

“I believe most of what Jane Fonda believes. In fact, I believed most of it before she did. But after you have heard a few of your own liberal opinions coming out of Jane’s mouth you start wondering whether the John Birch Society is so bad after all.”  

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