Over the past few months we have seen an intensification of public outrage against racist discourses being both supported and promulgated through the notion of free speech. The Free Speech Coalition emerged as two white supremacists sought entry to Aotearoa and were denied use of an Auckland city council venue due to their extremist views of race. What is interesting about this assertion of denial of free speech is that they were not denied free speech, in fact the Canadian supremacists received a great deal of media airtime to spew their hatred, which they did – quite freely. In her blog ‘If calling for Indigenous death is not hate speech, what the hell IS hate speech?’ Tina Ngata provides an overview of the issues surrounding this visit..
Tina makes note of the manipulative ways in which some supporters of the visit advocated it as an issue of freedom of speech.
“Supporters still felt compelled to patronise others with their misunderstandings that freedom of speech required us to provide a public platform for even the most vile suggestions. This is not a matter of opinion we are talking about here – the concept of Freedom of Speech is clearly outlined in both national and international law as having limitations. Still – you confront them with this and they will merely pretend they didn’t see it.”
So who is the Free Speech Coalition and what are they really about? The coalition members named on their website are:
- Dr. Michael Bassett – Former Labour Party Minister
- Dr. Don Brash – Former leader of the National and ACT Parties, and former Governor of the Reserve Bank of New Zealand
- Ashley Church – Business Leader
- Dr. David Cumin – Senior Lecturer University of Auckland
- Melissa Derby – University of Canterbury Academic
- Stephen Franks – Lawyer
- Paul Moon – Professor of History Auckland University of Technology
- Lindsay Perigo – Broadcaster
- Rachel Poulain – Writer
- Chris Trotter – Political Commentator
- Jordan Williams – Lawyer
It is an interesting line up. Most, but not all, advocate right wing conservative politics. A number have been a part of supporting or instigating defamation suits, highlighting that for those particular coalition members free speech is a free for all unless it is about them.
There are numerous indications that many in the Coalition are more about securing their right to reproduce hate speech against Māori and other minority groups, or to defend those that do so, in this country than they are about ‘free speech’. For example Brash is a supporter of Bob Jones in this defamation suit against Renae Maihi as reported in February this year. In an article related to Brash’s defence of Bob Jones it is stated,
“The ‘racist’ tag is freely used, with apparent impunity, by “Maori rights” activists, often to shut down debate”, Dr Brash said. “But any comment on or challenge to treaty orthodoxy unleashes a clobbering machine that extends from social media, through the mainstream media, to the Human Rights Commissioner”, Dr Brash said.
Central to the position of the Free Speech Coalition is also the ability to threaten court action and supporting those taking defamation suits for being called out for their racist discourses. Clearly Brash’s notion of ‘free speech’ does not reach to those that criticise racism or hate speech. It is more closely located to a context of freedom to oppress rather than freedom to challenge.
In regards to Chris Trotter, Graham Cameron in Spinoff states; “Chris Trotter claimed that “free speech denialism… [is] born of fear.”  Where fear may be experienced by those that are at the brunt of racism and white supremacist attacks, it is exactly that, a symptom. Fear is a symptom that is the result of hatred and the impact of generations of racism both personal and systemic. The cause is hate speech and racism.
In another example of selected application of free speech, David Cumin wrote “Whether you agree that settlements are not a real barrier to peace or you think continual refusal to accept a Jewish state is conducive to a resolution, there should be no place for free speech to cross over to hate speech or, worse, hateful action”.  From this statement, it appears hate speech applies and should be challenged in relation to Israel but not here in regards to racist discourses against Māori.
Melissa Derby a Māori (Ngāti Ranginui) academic at the University of Canterbury has indicated within a number of articles related to the Human Rights Commission recommendation that the Human Rights Act be amended to include protection from “religious hate speech” that “What we are seeing here is the Human Rights Commission putting up barriers to protect the beliefs of immigrant groups, and discriminating against Māori by not offering the same explicit safeguards. It’s like a form of neo-colonialism.”  A similar position is put by Paul Moon who goes further to bring in the western notion of enlightenment
“The freedom to criticise religion and to try to discover the truth was a burning issue (sometimes literally) in previous centuries. Yet in our more enlightened age, the Human Rights Commission is challenging the notion that we have progressed far enough to discuss, debate, and even criticise ideas that are different from our own”.
The argument that protection from religious hate speech somehow denies Māori rights is difficult to see, in fact what we do know with the Tohunga Suppression Act (1907) and the subsequent denial of Māori spiritual practices for many generations that the lack of such protections has had a significant impact both on Māori people and mātauranga Māori.
In an interview with Chris Lynch on Newshub in regards to free speech Melissa Derby shows a lack of analysis in regards to what constitutes racism and its impact,
“If you tell a racist joke and I find it distasteful and offensive should you be penalised for that. Course not. So you know its about where we draw the line here. Like I said by definition or the threshold for hate speech has to be high so that it doesn’t impinge on our right for freedom of speech. “
This was followed by an exchange with Chris Lynch, where Melissa goes on to show a fundamentally flawed understanding of racism and racial hierarchies and how they operate within power dynamics within society.
“M: It seems to me that we are an inclusive society but not where white people are concerned. It’s crazy and I don’t understand how people can be sort of be against racism but make what I see to be extraordinary racist comments based on their ethnicity. It seems to be it’s acceptable when it’s against white people
C: It’s kind of back to front racism isn’t it.
M: Yes it is.”
We need to be clear that there is no such thing a “back to front racism” and it is also not racist to call out members of the dominant group, in this case Pakeha or white people, when they make statements about our people that are offensive or inappropriate or uninformed or misinformed. Racism is about the imposition or reproduction of power relationships that have been defined through the notion of racial hierarchies that locate white people as superior and position Indigenous People, Black People, People of Colour on what were considered ‘lower rungs’ of the social order. In such an order white people are positioned in a place of superiority and dominance, a position that served as justification for the colonial invasion and occupation of Indigenous lands. Racism is about the imposition of ideologies and practices that oppress Indigenous People, Black People and all People of Colour. Racism and racist ideologies have been embedded through colonisation in all components of this society. Where Melissa Derby may consider herself an advocate for free speech it is equally clear that the discourses of race that she is articulating requires much more depth research and critical analysis.The current positioning that she is taking is uninformed and therefore extremely dangerous for Māori, as it serves to reinforce the wider racist discourses being asserted by some of her Free Speech Coalition colleagues.
Another member of the Free Speech Coalition that is prominent in his public comments on free speech, including his support of Bob Jones, is Paul Moon. Behind closed doors, or perhaps more appropriately, within unseen emails, Moon is just as capable of threatening those who challenge his views as many of his colleagues in the coalition. Where he seems to be more careful about not being associated with public threats, sending emails to Māori academics and their employers threatening possible legal action is as much a trademark of Paul Moon as it is other members of the coalition.
If we want to even more evidence that for many involved in the Free Speech coalition the issue is clearly not free speech just look here to the contradictions highlighted by Hayden Donnell.
- Don Brash, “after hearing Te Reo Māori on Radio New Zealand, called for the publicly funded station’s bosses to remove that “pointless” speech from the airwaves”.
- Don brash “obtained a High Court injuction to delay the publication of Nicky Hager’s 2006 book The Hollow Men”.
- David Farrar – “called for the government to take away Homebrew Crew’s grant money after they released an anti-government song, saying “They’re entitled to call [John Key] what they want, but I’d rather not have the taxpayer fund it”.”
- Jordan Williams “sued Colin Craig for defamation over some ridiculous pamphlets.”
- Stephen Franks – “called for legal penalties against people who burn flags, saying flag burning is “not speech” and shouldn’t be protected.”
So how can we understand this idea of Free Speech in Aotearoa. Well firstly we must acknowledge and place upfront colonisation and its impacts. In making the decision to not enable hate speech on her campus VC Professor Jan Thomas at Massey University gives a clear position that emphasises that an acceptance of freedom of speech can not be an enabling of hate speech,
“Let me be clear, hate speech is not free speech. Moreover, as Moana Jackson has eloquently argued, free speech has, especially in colonial societies, long been mobilised as a vehicle for racist comments, judgements and practices.Hate speech is repugnant, or as one American legal academic has stated, hate speech is “a rape of human dignity”. Hate speech should be called out for what it is, especially when it incites violence against minorities. Beyond the reach of the law, however, the battle against hate speech is fought most effectively through education and courageous leadership, rather than through suppression or legal censure.And this is where universities can take positive action by providing a venue for reasoned discussion and cogent argument. After all, the Education Act 1989 compels us to act as “critic and conscience” of society. This does not just mean protecting the values of academic freedom, it also means standing up for what is right.”
The concept of free speech advocated by the coalition is not of this land, just as the construct of democracy that it asserts to protect is not of this land. These are all imported constructs that have been created within western colonial knowledge and legal forms. Where we hear views such as ‘I abhor their views but I defend their right to say it’ we are reminded of the saying “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it” (which is said to be penned by Evelyn Beatrice Hall and attributed to the free speech views of Voltaire) as the basis for such a comment. However, such a view is grounded within the western colonial legal definition and context from which the original statement derived. It is as Moana Jackson noted highly problematic to advocate from a position that enables those in power to continue to dominate over others. Such advocacy of free speech does not serve the interests of those that live in a context of colonial oppression.
The power of words and the trauma of racism are well known to our people. Our tupuna understood the power and sanctity of words. We know that through karakia we can open and close spaces, we can clear spiritual and physical energies, we can create safe spaces and we can create harm. The vibration of kupu is inherently powerful. As such we have tikanga that come with speaking. We also have deep understanding that speech comes in many forms. We are expected to take responsibility for our words. We are expected to take responsibility for our thoughts. Racism is a transgression of mana. To do so comes with consequences. These are ways of understanding that to ensure healthy relationships we must take care with how we use words. This is not an easy task when we live with colonial occupation that does not adhere to these understandings.
Given what we know of the power of words, we have every right to challenge those that speak in ways that seek to cause destruction and harm to our people. This notion of western free speech is not ours, it is a cultural construction that colonisation has imposed upon our lands. The abuse of such is growing in this country. Racism is also not a two way street. Racism is grounded upon the belief that white people are superior to all others. Racism is not free speech, it is hate speech. There are not gradations of racism where some is somehow worse than others. Racism is racism. Freedom of speech can not be the mechanism by which this country enables freedom of hatred, freedom of racism, freedom of oppression. As Moana Jackson states:
“The bliss of freedom enjoyed by those who have power should never mean the right to cause pain to those who are comparatively powerless. And no one’s exercise of free speech should make another feel less free.”