Guest Post: Free speech: a relationship between citizen and state

A guest post by from The Coalition:

Earlier in the month, a group of New Zealanders from across the political spectrum, concerned about the direction of free speech rights, decided to raise money to judicially review Auckland Council and Phil Goff over their decision to restrict Lauren Southern and Stefan Molyneux from using Council owned venues. I was one of them.

The grassroot support from across the country shows Kiwis care about free speech – even if they don’t like the views of these speakers.

People from all walks of life and political views donated to ensure free speech both in Auckland and as a matter of precedent going into the future. We received emails from some donors apologising that they could only give a very small sum – say $2 – because they were on sickness benefits or were struggling to make ends meet.

The largest donation was $5,000. 75 percent of the $89,000 raised was from donations less than $300.

It was insulting for Stuff’s Glenn McConnell to assert that our donors just didn’t need the money. Many of our donors cut back last week to ensure the point of principle, of human rights, could be made in court.

That brings us to the principle at stake. Why is free speech so important that people made a personal financial sacrifice to ensure it was protected?

The right of free speech primarily governs the relationship between the citizen and the state.

The Government has the power to tax you, and if you refuse to pay, imprison you. If you own property in Auckland, you are forced to pay rates for common property and services provided by the Council.

As a ratepayer, if you are forced to pay for the provision of public spaces and buildings, should the Mayor be able to restrict their use for political reasons? That’s the principle at stake.

Critics of the Free Speech Coalition have laughed at this principle and argued that we should have used the money to pay for a private venue.

This is a pathetic argument. 

Firstly, from a practical perspective, there are very few suitable private venues available at short notice in Auckland – the Council owns most large spaces.

But more importantly, paying for a private venue would do nothing to protect the principle of free speech.

Yes, Southern and Molyneux, would be able to speak on August 3, but the ability of a Mayor to restrict the use of public venues to speakers they find politically dangerous would go unchallenged. I suspect many of those defending Mr Goff would not be if it were Judith Collins in the Mayoral chair, banning, say, a radical anti-Israel group.

Almost all the organisers of the Free Speech Coalition disagree with the views of Southern and Molyneux. The principle at stake is far more important.

While Phil Goff initially claimed his position was motivated by opposition to hate speech, the Council is now backtracking on his behalf. The Council argues, in a similar fashion to colleges in the United States when they have restricted certain speakers, that protests would cause ‘health and safety’ issues.

That’s a dangerous position to hold. It would effectively allow the Mayor to ban speakers whenever there are potential protests. It gives a ‘heckler’s veto’.

So, we’re not simply going to court to fight for the rights of these two Canadians. We’re fighting to set a precedent that your right to free speech isn’t chipped away, no matter what your views are. That means defending speakers you might find personally repulsive. But that’s what standing up for freedom of speech means – otherwise it’s not free speech at all.

Jordan Williams is a public lawyer and member of the Free Speech Coalition. www.freespeechcoalition.nz

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