24th Dec 2021
As the end of the year approaches, we thought it the right time to look back at our work to date – work that you have made possible with your support.
Since launching the Free Speech Union in May, we’ve been laser-focused on defending and promoting free speech in New Zealand. The enemies of free speech hunt in packs – this union was formed so that defenders of free speech can band together too.
Speak Up For Women vs Palmerston North City Council
The feminist group, Speak Up For Women opposed the Births, Deaths, Marriages, and Relationships Registration Bill (the bill that would allow people to change their sex on their birth certificate), saying it risked unintended consequences for women’s sex-based rights. They were on a speaking tour to discuss the Bill and made bookings at council venues around the country for these events, including the Palmerston North City Library. The Library later told SUFW it was cancelling their event and would only host a debate where “all views” would be represented.
In his decision, Justice Nation granted the sought injunctive relief: forcing the Palmerston North City Council to host the event. the Judge said the Council’s decision involved a “significant failure to recognise SUFW’s right to freedom of speech and freedom of peaceful assembly.” He also found that putting conditions on the event which insisted that SUFW could only present their views on the Bill if they were countered by speakers with an opposing view could not be considered a reasonable limitation on those rights.
The Auckland Council got the message too. With Palmerston North’s case as a backdrop, Auckland Council settled with SUFW and the Auckland event went ahead in the Council Chamber. Similarly, Dunedin City and Wellington City Councils backtracked and allowed the SUFW’s bookings. The latter accepted SUFW’s booking at the Michael Fowler Centre after sending lawyers to the Palmerston North’s High Court hearing to see if they could get away with not allowing the Michael Fowler event.
Leave to appeal to Supreme Court granted in Moncreiff-Spittle
While the Court of Appeal judgement in the Moncrieff-Spittle case represented a substantial improvement on the High Court judgment, we think we can do better. The Court was given a perfect opportunity to deal head-on with the heckler’s veto concept but they weirdly passed that ball into space: saying all the right things about the value of free speech, but not taking the last step to put the onus on authorities to prevent situations of the heckler’s veto.
We are appealing on grounds that the Court of Appeal did not give adequate weight to freedom of speech when concluding that Auckland Council (Auckland Regional Facilities)’s decision to cancel the 2018 event was reasonable and justified.
The Supreme Court decided that the case is important enough to accept our application for leave to appeal. It is set down to be heard at the Supreme Court in Wellington on 22 February 2022.
Hate Speech Campaign
A primary focus of the Free Speech Union in 2021 has been preventing the introduction of hate speech laws. We’re proud that more than 40,000 Kiwis signed our petition calling on the Government to can their hate speech proposals and more than three-quarters of submissions received by the Ministry of Justice on the hate speech proposals came from our supporters using the FreeSpeechSubmission.com online submission tool.
That’s important. It means the Government can’t claim public support for their dangerous ‘hate speech’ laws.
And it is pleasing to see so many of the submissions were from members of minority communities. Contrary to claims by the likes of the Human Rights Commissioner, Kiwis are waking up to how free speech protects diversity and minority interests.
It is deeply concerning that the Prime Minister and Minister of Justice have failed to answer clearly when asked what speech would and would not be criminalised under the proposals. If the Prime Minister and Minister of Justice can’t easily explain what ‘hate speech’ is being criminalised, how is the average citizen supposed to know?
Vague intentions make bad law and overseas experience has shown that the introduction of such laws has resulted in law enforcement consistently missing the mark, and has created a structure allowing for legal harassment of the state against citizens, even if they are ultimately found not guilty.
There has however been some good news out of the United Kingdom this month with a landmark judgement from the Court of Appeal that the recording of non-crime hate incidents is an unlawful interference with freedom of expression. As the Court says, the knowledge that such matters are being recorded and stored in a police database is likely to have had a serious “chilling effect” on public debate.
But the fight isn’t over. It appears that rather than backing down, the Government will be releasing their hate speech legislation in the new year. Rest assured we are gearing up to fight it at every stage of the legislative process so watch this space! We’ll let you know how you can get involved in stopping these laws in the New Year.
Raymond Richards vs Waikato University
After the Tertiary Education Union refused to help, we stepped in to support a Waikato University lecturer’s fight for academic freedom. Dr Raymond Richards faced potential disciplinary action for his lectures about methods of critical thinking in history after he referred by way of example to “religious cranks” who said the earth was flat and that dinosaurs and Adam and Eve had met.
Following a student raising a concern, the Head of the Social Sciences School summoned Dr Richards to a meeting. They did not reach an agreement but HR later wrote to him saying they “do not expect to have a repeat of these matters”. The Head of School also cancelled an in-class test of the students’ understanding of the methods of critical thinking.
Our lawyers lept to the defence of free speech reminding the University of its responsibility to uphold academic freedom. They subsequently u-turned on their treatment of Dr Richards – a significant victory.
Defending the Listener Seven
As you probably know by now, much of our efforts of late have focused on defending the academic freedom of seven distinguished professors who authored the now infamous The Listener letter, which took issue with a government working group’s proposal to incorporate Mātauranga Maori concepts as an equivalence of “western science” in the school science curriculum.
This time, the Tertiary Education Union not only refused to defend the professors’ right to state controversial opinions, but it put out a statement describing the letter as “damaging”, and said, “members found it offensive, ill-advised and racist”.
We have since been contacted by a number of academics appalled and outraged to have found out that their Union made a statement condemning The Listener letter on behalf of members without any consultation.
After we released news of the Royal Society’s investigation to the media and launched a crowdfund to cover the professors legal fees, we leveraged our international connections in the hopes that drawing more attention to the issue internationally would make the Royal Society feel the heat.
With Richard Dawkins, Steven Pinker and Jerry Coyne having weighed in, the Royal Society now knows that the eyes of the world’s science community will be watching when they announce the outcome of their investigation into Cooper and Nola.
We will update you on the progress of the investigation when we can. But regardless of its outcome, the fact that they instigated this ridiculous witch hunt means they’ve already tarnished their reputation on the world stage. Organisations should be aware they can pay a heavy price when they join in on the pile-on to appease the mob.
Meanwhile, Auckland University’s Vice-Chancellor, Dawn Freshwater, seems to have had second thoughts now that the University’s international reputation is on the line. After rushing to condemn the seven scientists on behalf of the University in July, saying their words “caused hurt and dismay” she has now announced that the University will host a symposium on the issue:
In his latest piece, Graham Adams suggests a public apology to the seven professors would show it was more than a PR stunt.
Local Government Codes of Conduct
Earlier this year we wrote to the South Wairarapa District Council urging them to remove an outdated anti-democratic clause from their Code of Conduct that stifled free speech.
We are pleased to now see it reported in the media that the Council has adopted a new Code of Conduct that omits the troublesome provision which forbade criticism of council decisions and policy.
Similarly, we were pleased to have supported Otago Regional Councillor Michael Laws after a Code of Conduct complaint from the Chief Executive landed him under investigation after comments he made to the media. The complaint was ultimately not upheld, and we received feedback that the letter we sent to the Chief Executive was instrumental in the outcome of the investigation, and the complaint later being dropped. This just shows the way these complaints are lobbed about to intimidate councillors!
We foresee Codes of Conduct as being a major battleground for the Union in 2022. There is a worrying trend of Codes of Conduct within organisations being weaponised to undermine free speech. This is true across numerous sectors, not just local government, where vague provisions can be twisted to suit just about any purpose.
Of course, it hasn’t been all court cases and crowdfunds. We’ve helped a number of members in employment and other situations this year. As a Union, we need to put the interests of our members first, which means we don’t always inform the membership of every case we take up.
One example we can share is that the Union defended a member who was intimidated at their place of work by a senior Council employee. Their crime? Writing a submission to the Council on Maori wards that took an opposing view to the one held by the employee.
We laid a Code of Conduct complaint against the employee, pointing out that citizens have every right to participate in local democracy without being harassed and intimidated by Council staff for expressing their views. In exchange for not naming the Council or employee, the Union negotiated an apology and retraction from the employee.
The member wrote us a kind note of thanks saying;
“I contacted the Free Speech Union looking for help after being intimated in my place of work as a result of my political views. Jordan and the team jumped into action and did more than I could have hoped to support my right to have an opinion. At every stage, I always felt in control of what the union was doing on my behalf. I now feel comfortable in my place of work knowing that even if a similar incident was to occur, the Free Speech Union would have my back and ensure there was a consequence to intimidating me because of my political opinion. I am so grateful that this amazing union exists”
As you can see, it’s been a tremendous year for the Free Speech Union but the fight is only getting started. Membership means you’ll have a team in your corner if someone comes after you because of your speech. Whether it’s with embattled professors, local councillors or activist groups, we have a track record of standing up for our member’s speech — and winning. If you’re not already a member, click here so we can hit the ground running in the New Year.