Saturday, 11 August 2018

Free Speech and Hate Speech


Australian racist Pauline Hanson One Nation Party leader has been invited to speak in NZ by the little known (revived after a 20 years of hibernation) Government Transparency League who president John Lehmann, incidentally, told Paula Bennett that rape ("a bit of violence") is acceptable, before apologizing, saying it was a joke. Phil Goff is also invited, which presumably makes Hanson's invite more acceptable acceptable. Pn28

For some weeks now New Zealanders have been bombarded by people bandying contrary views on hate speech and freedom of speech, and the UK has not been far behind.

Tory former foreign minister and Brexit champion Boris Johnson recently publicly compared Muslim women's burqas to 'letter boxes' and 'bank robbers'. PM Teresa May urged him to apologize -- which he refused -- and asked him to choose his words more carefully. Johnson is no fool. He deliberately chose to be care-less.

The NZ debate
The NZ scene was set off with the proposed visit of ultra-right Canadian racists Lauren Southern  and Stefan Molyneux  
Auckland Mayor, Phil Goff, refused them venue access which led the unfettered free speech lobby to cry foul. They had already been refused venues in the UK and Australia where they spoke against multiculturalism and said Aboriginals and their culture are backward, When an Auckland venue was found some days later, the event was cancelled because of fear of violence. Many in NZ, including some who thought they had the right to speak, were pleased to see them depart,

PM Jacinda Adern said Kiwis were hostile to their views and Green Party Marama Davidson said Aotearoa "would not stand for their messages of of racism, hatred and especially white supremacy."1 but Government did not follow their cross-Tasman cousins by refusing the pair visas.

They were allowed into NZ because we have no law making hate speech a specific offence, although arguably the Human Rights Act 1993, the Crimes Act 1961, and the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights, to which we are signatories, could be used.

But an appeal to the Human Rights Review Tribunal by Labour Maori MP Louisa Wall who complained against Fairfax newspaper (now Stuff) for publishing cartoons showing Maori as welfare bludgers and poor parents preoccupied with smoking, drinking and gambling was unsuccessful.  The only successful prosecution goes back to 1979 for distributing pamphlets vilifying Jews. 

Labour MP former lawyer and academic Duncan Webb  thinks hate speech offences should be dealt with under the Summary Offences Act together with intimidation and other social offences. Earlier, former Race Relations Conciliator Susan Devoy unsuccessfully asked Government for a hate-speech law, arguing that free speech could too easily become a cover for threatening and harmful language (NZ Listener July 21)

Meanwhile the NZ Listener, one of our few fair and thoughtful journals on controversial issues, ran an eleven-page article, spelling out the pros and cons of free speech1

And at the weekend NZTV1's Q+A programme, now screening at 9:30 on Sundays, devoted a quarter of its 1½ hour spot to the Free Speech (See Follow ups and references below for this and most further references).

Then, only a few days ago Massey University VC Prof Jan Thomas, prompted by the prospect of former National PM and ACT leader Brash visiting campus publicly stated hate speech had no place in a university

And yesterday, to keep the pot boiling, a debate at Auckland University involving the venerable Brash was met with support from some and angry protests by others. Join the hilarity by looking at the video.

Basic arguments: con and pro
The basic arguments are reasonably straightforward.

Pro. This view holds to free speech regardless of consequences. Free speech is a human right in a democratic society. Its supporters may or may not agree with a hate speech they all think the hate is better brought out into the open so that it can debated; its suppression will cause it to break out in a worse form, its supporters growing, and violence could result. And where, they ask, do you set the boundary to what is acceptable and unacceptable? Banning once will lead to more bans. Who sets sets and defines the boundary?
Con. Those for placing limits on free speech are concerned with the consequences of hate speech, whether it be on the basis of race, religion or sexual orientation. They argue that hate speech incites ill-will, hostility and violence towards the target groups, encourages others to assume hate speech is natural, making it more popular among sections of a population. increasing the number of those spreading it message further  Unfettered free speech impinges on the freedom of others. But victims of free speech,  who have a special stake in defining hate speech, rarely are free to respond. A reasonable society should be able to define and put boundaries on free speech so that it is not hate speech.

Questions no one else raised
I'll conclude with two views that are decidedly for limits on free speech  which raise issues not mentioned or taken into account by either pro or cons contenders.

First, from my old friend retired book seller and Board member of our Holocaust Centre Steven Sedley. 

I quote extracts from his blog posting of 25 July 1.

All sorts of 'right minded' people, people whose opinions I thought I would usually respect get their knickers in knots over the question of 'Free speech'.

After describing Lauren Southern as " a knock you dead, glamorous 23 year old young woman" he asks

Who are these speakers and what is their message? We know that they gallivant around the world disseminating false and repugnant ideas. Why were they stopped from speaking in the UK, in Australia? Who funds their travel? Whose cause are they promoting?

No one else asked these questions.

Would anyone argue that everyone has the right to disseminate lies, or would they argue that one person's truth is another's lie. I believe that there is such a thing as fact based truth, and disseminating lies and half-truths to destabilise society is unacceptable.

Would the champions of free speech grant the right to people with dissenting opinions to question and comment? I would imagine that such questions and comments would be ruled out of order, or if the person asking the questions persists, he or she would be manhandled and thrown out.

No one asked the Canadians that question, either.

But then such rumpus would give the promoters of the event further publicity. For the promoters of extreme causes freedom of speech is a one way street, something they demand for themselves, but as history shows, they answer those who dissent with violence.

Everything has a context

My own contribution to the debate is that, like everything else in life, the issue has to be seen in context. We should ask:

Is everyone entitled to free speech? Prisoners, the mentally deranged? 
Is everyone entitled to speak to everyone? Is there no limit to their audience? Does this include young people, and if not at what age is unfettered free speech allowed?
Is free speech a human right (as some claim) in all situations? A national emergency, war time?
Is free speech acceptable on every topic? Pre-martial sex? Approval of pornography?
Does the size of the audience have any relevance to free speech? Is what is acceptable to a hall of 900 who paid or chose to be present and where the audience can usually respond, also acceptable to the almost-involuntary attendance of a mass audience watching national TV, where the opportunities to respond are limited? Switching the TV off is an individual response but many people would probably leave the TV on.

Finally, how much is free speech a Western-perceived right? Or does our "one size fits all" apply also to non-Western societies and cultures?  

I'm not necessarily talking about the right of women in Muslim societies, but of many indigenous societies, such as Maori and Pacifika, where some limits would be put on some free speech, in some places and some situations. And who are we Pakeha to tell them otherwise! 

Or imagine the divisiveness and likely chaos of unfettered free speech in a  Chimbu tribe in PNG, in a Samoan village on an atoll in Tokelau.   I'll say no more.


Follow-ups and References

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