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Freely speaking

Published in Insights, The New Zealand Initiative’s newsletter, 10 August 2018

Since New Zealand just had to discuss the meaning of free speech, perhaps it is worth defining what free speech is. And what it is not.

Absent a written constitution, let us turn to Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights for guidance. It states: “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”

As strong as this sounds, this provision only confers an individual right to hold and express opinions. It compels no one else to share, promote or publish them. And this, more than anything else, is the fundamental misunderstanding in our recent debates.

It is one thing for two hitherto unknown Canadian activists to hold strong (and objectionable) views. That is their right. It is another thing to force anyone to provide them with a venue. The activists’ individual right is not infringed by their being denied a platform.

To illustrate the difference, let’s imagine me writing a glowing essay on capitalism and submitting it to the left-of-centre website The Standard. I suspect they would reject it because it does not fit their worldview. But that would not make it any more censorship than my editorial control over what we publish at the Initiative.

Even Massey University’s banning of Don Brash’s speech is, strictly speaking, not a case of restricting free speech. Within hours of being uninvited, Dr Brash’s manuscript was published on the Herald’s website, and he could explain himself on radio and TV. That is hardly a case of effective censorship. And universities, too, can lawfully determine how their resources are used.

The real scandal of banning Dr Brash lies elsewhere. By uninviting Dr Brash, Massey University has not been true to its own values. Massey’s Charter commits it to promoting “free and rational inquiry”. That is what the very idea of the university is all about.

If universities cannot tolerate dissent and the free exchange of heterodox views, they cease to be universities. It would make them indoctrination camps.

In short: Freedom of speech is important. Not every restriction of expression is objectionable. And universities must remain true to ideals of academic inquiry.

I just wanted to say that. And in this little column I could.

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