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Dr. Don Brash

PC Culture Limits Free Speech

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Months ago, when the Massey University Politics Society asked me to give a speech on the Manawatu campus about my time in politics, nobody could have guessed how events would unfold.

A week or two before my speech, scheduled for 8 August, Phil Goff made headlines by purporting to ban the two so-called “Alt-Right” Canadian visitors.  The Free Speech Coalition was launched, and I agreed to put my name on the press release announcing the plan to take legal action against Mr Goff’s ban.  I was one of 11 people on the press release, people as diverse as Lindsay Perigo and Chris Trotter.  We were quite explicitly not endorsing what the two Canadians might say, but rather endorsing their right to speak.

And of course, in due course it turned out that Mr Goff had no power to block the Canadians from speaking at a council-owned venue, and that it was a “security issue” which had led the Canadians to be silenced.

Then just over 24 hours before I was to give my speech in Palmerston North, early on 7 August, the person who had invited me to speak to the Politics Society about my time in politics advised in a short email that the Massey Vice Chancellor had decided that I would not be allowed to speak on the campus, citing security concerns.  But her press statement announcing the ban also mentioned my “support” for the two Canadians, and my opposition to Maori wards in Palmerston North and Manawatu as inconsistent with the values of a Treaty-based institution like Massey University (whatever that means).

Her decision was seen by almost all observers as totally inappropriate.  She admitted that she had not discussed her security concerns with university security staff, let alone the Police, so it seemed very clear that “security” was at best a very flimsy reason for the ban.  It also held the implication that all that was needed to shut down free speech was to make a vague threat on social media.

It also seemed almost certain that the real reason for the ban related to her repugnance for the two Canadians and her assumption that I supported their views, rather than their right to express those views.  And also to her view that pushing for a colour-blind political system was somehow inconsistent with the Treaty of Waitangi, rather than my view that it is having a racially based voting system which is inconsistent with any plausible interpretation of the Treaty.

So suddenly the debate which the University of Auckland Debating Society had also been planning for several months, for 9 August, to debate the moot that PC culture was inhibiting free speech, took on a whole new significance.

There was no suggestion that the University of Auckland would ban that debate, and indeed they were happy for the Debating Society to move the debate to a much larger lecture theatre.

But sadly, a number of protesters were absolutely determined that I would not be allowed to speak at all because they had convinced themselves that I was in some way anti-Maori and/or anti-Treaty.  How on earth did we get to the stage where a perfectly orthodox view, accepted across all English-speaking countries, that everyone should have equal civic rights and responsibilities, can be described as “hate speech” and inconsistent with the Treaty?

The protesters certainly caused the order of the speeches to be reversed, so that instead of my speaking first (as the leader of the Affirmative) I spoke last, to avoid the risk that the other five speakers would not be heard at all.  And the protesters were even able to prevent me from speaking for a few minutes, but in the end they simply proved that free speech is opposed by a noisy minority of the population.  Fortunately, I believe the overwhelming majority of New Zealanders strongly support free speech, and that must surely be a cause for optimism.

University of Auckland Debating Society – 9 August 2018

Debate on the moot that: This House believes that PC culture has gone too far to the point of limiting freedom of speech

Mr Speaker, my team strongly supports the motion that PC culture has gone too far to the point of limiting freedom of speech.

Indeed, this is so obviously true that I almost feel sorry for our opponents trying to argue the negative of this motion.

Let me immediately make it clear that we are not arguing that there should be absolutely no limits on free speech. 

It has been long recognized that it cannot be acceptable to shout “Fire” in a crowded theatre.

It cannot be acceptable to incite violence against person or property.

It should not be legal to post on the internet an explanation of how to use 3D printing to make a hand-gun which cannot be detected by airport screening systems (a recent free speech issue in the US).

But that we have recently moved well beyond such restraints is indisputable.

Our Bill of Rights Act appears to provide a strong guarantee of freedom of speech, not unlike the protection afforded by the First Amendment to the US Constitution.

But the Human Rights Act passed in 1993 contradicts that guarantee, by making it an offence to “publish or distribute … matter which is threatening, abusive or insulting”, and it appears to be that legislation which those who want to shut down free speech implicitly use.

Many people now recognize the dangers.

Last year, Professor Paul Moon, History professor at AUT, quickly succeeded in getting nearly 30 prominent New Zealanders from all corners of the political spectrum to sign a statement emphasizing the vital importance of freedom of speech – people as different as Bryan Gould, Geoffrey Palmer, Tariana Turia and Don Brash.

And just last month, there was an immediate reaction from a host of people, again as different as Chris Trotter and Lindsay Perigo, when Phil Goff purported to block two Canadians from speaking in an Auckland Council-owned facility – I say “purported to block” because it turned out, on being challenged, that he had not blocked them at all and had no legal power to do so.

Media leaders like John Roughan, Nevil Gibson and Tim Watkin chimed in.

Perhaps even more encouraging has been the quite extraordinary number of people who over the last 48 hours have strongly deplored the decision by the Vice Chancellor of Massey University to ban me from giving a totally innocuous speech about my time in politics.  Matt Robson, a former Alliance Member of Parliament phoned me the other night and said “Don, you and I disagree on almost every policy issue, but we are very much in agreement on the issue of free speech.”

So a large number of people have now become aware of just how far the PC culture which permeates much of our society has gone to shut down discussion on issues regarded as in some way “beyond the pale”.

These issues relate to religion, to sexual orientation, to family structure, to the rights of different racial groups, to climate change – you name it.  There are some issues which are regarded as just too sensitive to discuss.

A year or so back, I read a book by Niall Fergusson which noted that while Jews made up only around 0.2% of the world’s population, and only 2% of the American population, they had won 22% of all Nobel prizes, 38% of the Oscars for Best Director and 67% of the John Clarke Bates Medals for economists under the age of 40.  No fewer than 23% of the CEOs of the Forbes 400 companies are Jewish, as are the founders or co-founders of most of the world’s biggest technology companies, such as Facebook, Google, Intel and Oracle.

Now I don’t know why that is the case, and I hasten to add that I am not a Jew myself, but it is impossible to ignore the possibility that at very least Jewish culture is superior to many other cultures.

The Treaty of Waitangi was an extraordinary document for its time – indeed, for any time – because it makes it quite explicit in Article III that all New Zealanders should have the same legal status.  Yet to say that today risks accusations of racism, and certainly risks being shut out of council-owned facilities, as Bruce Moon was in Nelson a couple of months ago.

Recently, the Human Rights Commission sought to ban disharmonious comments that are “targeted at the religion and beliefs of ethnic minority communities” in New Zealand – which being interpreted means you are free to insult Christians and Christianity but not Muslims and Islam.

And that surely is political correctness gone mad.  I want to be free to say, and to say loudly, that people who believe that gays should be executed, and that people who want to abandon the religion of their childhood should similarly face a death sentence, have no place in New Zealand.

At the moment, the politically correct amongst us would stop me from saying that.

Salman Rushdie once said: “There is no such thing as a right not to be offended.”  And he was right.