Free Speech Matters

Free speech matters. I keep saying this and I won’t stop. It matters because it is – and remains – one of the critical foundations of democracy.

That we are even considering undermining this further should be ringing massive alarm bells in people’s minds even before we begin considering debates around co-governance and partnership.

The government has backed off some of its more extreme proposals, but is still wedded to the idea of adding ‘religion’ as a key category for hate speech. There is no need for this and nor, if passed, would the category be consistently applied anyway. Put another way, we all know that some religious views and groups will be protected, while others ignored. I might also add, we rightly removed blasphemy laws from the statute books a few years ago. As one wit noted, the divine is big enough to handle any criticisms nor is going to appear in a courtroom.

Make no mistake, if Labour pass this law adding religion as a protected category when it comes to speech, it will be opening the door for other groups to be added in the future. It is just the first of many steps to limit what people say, think, and believe – turning New Zealand into a monological country, rather than one with a range of diverse views and yes, sometimes with views that contradict, challenge, and confront. Of course, the obvious questions are who gets to decide what a protected group is and for what reasons. In modern discourse it seems mostly based on who can cry loudest that they are a victim, often extrapolating harm beyond anything physical to simply having a position challenged in a way that makes them uncomfortable.

What I notice is many calling for such laws want to protect their views from being challenged or critiqued. It really is that simple. Our laws are already clear that anyone inciting actual violence against any one or group is already illegal. Yet this is not enough and many calling for change seem intent on insuring there is not discussion or debate about their beliefs or views. So certain of their beliefs, or perhaps worried at inherent weakness in their views, that no discussion (be this from mild to vigorous) must be allowed. Those offering alternative viewpoints are to be silenced in the name of ‘hate speech’. We seem to have forgotten that free speech is what has allowed minority groups to have a voice, promote change, and progress society.

In recent days I have seen what some might term vicious ad hominem attacks on the community at Bethlehem College. Would these abusive writings (including those published by the NZ Herald and Stuff) be seen as ‘hate speech’ under the new legislation? They could very well be. Those writing are directly attacking a group’s religious views, stirring up ‘hatred’ in response to what they see as ‘hatred’, and unhappy that there could be alternative views on various matters. What would stop the College taking these ‘attackers’ to court under Labour’s new hate speech laws? Again, I don’t support the proposed changes nor wish to see these various views silenced or challenged in court. The more debate the better I say. But it does illustrate the mess Labour is seeking to create and is perhaps a consequence advocates for this law change are not anticipating.

The final and sad irony, is that many of those calling for hate speech laws are themselves abusive of those who oppose them. I see, day after day, comments on social and mainstream media by these same people deriding, decrying, and at times abusing people with names and labels. At one level this is simply hypocrisy, but I think it actually clearly highlights the key motivation behind those calling for such laws – they wish to suppress those who hold different views from them.