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Dr Muriel Newman

Restraining Free Speech

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In this politically correct world that we now live, it is important to hear again the words of Voltaire which echo the essence of free speech – “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”. Increasingly our right to free expression is being eroded by the apparent rights of others who disagree with what we say.

Late last month a “National Statement on Race Relations” was launched by the Prime Minister at the Human Rights Commission’s Diversity Forum in Auckland. The Statement highlighted some of the dangers we face. [1] On the one hand it says “We all have a right to freedom of expression”, but on the other hand it diminishes that right by saying, “It should be exercised in a manner that respects the rights of others”. That qualification is what threatens the freedom of speech envisioned by Voltaire given it is a state agency that is the arbiter.

The Statement makes it clear that the “Incitement of racial hostility is a criminal offence”, explaining that it is unlawful to use words which are threatening, abusive, or insulting in such a way as to incite hostility “against any group of persons in or who may be coming to New Zealand on the ground of the colour, race, or ethnic or national origins of that group of persons”. It also states that the media have a responsibility to be “accurate, fair and balanced”.

The problem with all of this is that it creates a murky world where freedom of speech is conditional upon the approval of a third party.

Conditional freedom of speech is something we should all be concerned about, but none more so than academics whose very purpose in life is to advance knowledge by challenging conventional wisdom. Academic freedom is a convention that bestows on academics the right to be the ‘critic and conscience’ of society. In this regard, it embraces the open and free discussion of controversial political, social and economic issues, without retaliation by their university or the government. However, in spite of this so-called safeguard, over the last few months we have seen some blatant examples of the government attempting to discredit academics who have dared to challenge “sacred cow” issues.

Back in June, the Government’s Crown Research Institute, Landcare Research, published a report which challenged the evidence that visitors had arrived in New Zealand – and brought with them Pacific rats – around 200 AD, well before Maori settlement. Landcare claimed that their research on the age of Pacific rat bones “shows conclusively” that the earliest rats had arrived in New Zealand at the time of Polynesian settlement around 1280 AD. [2]

These finding were used to try to discredit the well-documented earlier work of Canterbury University’s Professor Richard Holdaway and his colleagues, who in 1996 and again in 2002, found that “The Pacific rat was present in both the North and South Islands of New Zealand at least 800 years before permanent Polynesian settlement”. They concluded, “We contend that the series of ages from Earthquakes #1 shows that rat bones older than Polynesian settlement exist in New Zealand, and that the hypothesis that Pacific rats did not reach the main islands of New Zealand until the time of Polynesian settlement about 750 years ago must be rejected. [3]

The point here is that while Landcare Research clearly found rat bones that dated back to 1280 AD, the scientific method means that the verification of a single rat bone substantially older than that would refute their hypothesis. That’s what Holdaway et al found, and no new research can discredit that fact, no matter how convenient it might be to try!

Last month saw another university academic embroiled in controversy, this time as a result of the publication of a new book on Maori cannibalism. Dr Paul Moon, a professor of history at the Maori Development Unit of the Auckland University of Technology, published “This Horrid Practice”, in which he explains that cannibalism was a violent and widespread practice among traditional Maori. These revelations attracted accusations of racism and brought calls for his resignation.

Dr Moon is this week’s NZCPR Guest Commentator, and in his article “Cannibalism too unpalatable for some” he states:

“There is currently a growing body of literature being produced by scholars in many parts of the world which suggests that traditional cannibalism – of the sort that was practiced by Maori in New Zealand – either never occurred at all, or that if it did, it was done to perform for Europeans, and was not a part of the true culture of those ‘performers’. This sort of historical revisionism seems to elevate the novelty of an academic position above what I have always considered to be the primary object of any historical endeavour: to try to move closer to what Gibbon termed ‘the naked, unblushing truth’ of the past.

“Among the main findings were that cannibalism was a widespread feature of traditional Maori society, and that contrary to the popular suggestion that it was practiced to consume the mana of the dead person, it was more frequently a product of hostility (often in the immediate aftermath of a battle) in which the dead were eaten as a means of inflicting further humiliation on them, culminating in them being turned into excrement”.

The attacks on Paul Moon included an anonymous complaint to the Human Rights Commission. The Commission responded by offering Dr Moon mediation – which they later denied – eventually deciding not to proceed with an investigation.

Massey University Economist, Dr Greg Clydesdale, was not so lucky. A press statement in May about a research paper he had prepared, which showed that Polynesian immigration is fueling an underclass, stirred up such frenzy that it resulted in a 69 page review by the Human Rights Commission – in spite of no official complaint being laid! [4]

According to Dr Clydesdale, “The governments own data shows that of all immigrant groups entering New Zealand, Pacific Islanders have less productivity and are less likely to contribute to economic growth. They are much less likely to start enterprises with lower rates of employers and self-employed. They are the highest unemployed in every age group. They also earn disproportionately lower incomes. These poor economic outcomes are linked to other social problems. Pacific people are over-represented in justice statistics with higher rates of conviction and prosecution than the total population. They are more likely to be the victims of violent crime, more likely to need government assistance for housing and income, and have lower life expectancies”. [5]

In both of these cases where the Human Rights Commission was involved, university department Heads strongly defended their colleagues’ right to raise contentious issues in publications and put them in the public domain. Defending academic freedom, particularly from attack by organs of the state, is a crucial role of tertiary institutions that helps to keep the juggernaut of political correctness at bay.

But the bigger question is what happens next?

The march of human rights protectionism into the arena of free speech looks ominous. All it takes is one person to take offence and lay a complaint, for an investigation to be launched. Or, in the Clydesdale case, for the Race Relations Commissioner to have such an interest in the issue as to warrant the resources of the state being deployed without even a complaint being lodged. We also know that around the world ethnic groups are now using human rights restrictions on inciting racial disharmony as a smokescreen for a direct assault on the freedom of expression, as we saw with the Danish Mohammed cartoon debacle. Personal attacks under the auspices of the human rights legislation have become a mechanism to legitimately shred reputations and ruin careers, creating an atmosphere of fear and intimidation. Is this what we want for New Zealand?

Rather than looking to strengthen Human Rights laws, maybe we should be abandoning the legislative approach which has helped to create an environment whereby anyone who says anything that someone else does not like is not only labelled as a racist, homophobe, sexist or some other derogatory description, but can be persecuted by Big Brother bureaucracy. For a civilised country like ours, surely free speech and robust debate should be encouraged and cherished, rather than being allowed to be eroded by those who take offence and seek to use the strong arm of the state for the purpose of retaliation. Surely free speech should be an inalienable right in a democracy.


1.HRC, Statement on Race Relations

2.Landcare Research, Dating Human Arrival in New Zealand

3. Prof Richard Holdaway et al, Optical dating of quartz sediments and accelerator mass spectrometry 14C dating of bone gelatin and moa eggshell: a comparison of age estimates for non-archaeological deposits in New Zealand

4. Race Relations Commissioner, Pacific Peoples in New Zealand

5. Dr Greg Clydesdale, Growing Pains: the valuation and cost of human capital