4 Sep 2019

NZ's right-wing turn up in force for controversial free speech case

10:30 am on 4 September 2019

For the past two days room eight in Auckland's High Court has been home to some of the country's notable right-wing figures, who are bent on affirming the speaking rights of two controversial Canadians.

Lauren Southern and Stefan Molyneux.

Lauren Southern and Stephan Molyneux. Photo: Supplied.

The man behind the Orewa speech, Don Brash, made an appearance yesterday, and Jordan Williams from the Taxpayers' Union has been listening intently in the public gallery, a few seats down from a man in a MAGA (Make Ardern Go Away) hat.

Old Conservative Party leader Colin Craig also poked his head around the door at one point, although he was in the building for another reason - to face defamation action brought by a former party colleague.

On the court documents, University of Auckland anaesthesiology lecturer David Cumin is listed as one applicant, would-be Dunedin Mayor, climate change denier, Donald Trump supporter and rare books dealer Malcolm Moncrief-Spittle the other.

Representing the Free Speech Coalition is the Queen's Counsel Jack Hodder, who was recently snapped up by the Council of Licensed Firearms Owners to oppose changes to the country's gun laws.

According to Mr Williams, the exercise has cost about $200,000 so far and, if they didn't succeed in the High Court, he said they'd appeal.

The group's claim: Auckland Council broke the law and undermined New Zealand's democracy by stopping alt-right activists Lauren Southern and Stephan Molyneux from speaking at the council-owned Bruce Mason Centre last July.

They claim Mayor Phil Goff "ordered or dictated" this decision, for which they say there was no lawful basis.

The council claims the plug was pulled on the event entirely on health and safety grounds, after the strength of opposition to the speakers became apparent.

But Mr Hodder spent much of yesterday looking for holes in this assertion, claiming the decision was made without consulting police and with no credible evidence of a security risk.

This, Mr Hodder said, created a concerning precedent - "the thug's veto".

He said: "Pre-emption of the exercise of the relevant freedoms by contrived or ill-founded concerns about supposed health and safety risks associated with possible non-peaceful or non-lawful protests against the event."

The council's lawyers steered clear of addressing the controversial views held by Ms Southern and Ms Molyneux, which include that 'your race strongly influences your IQ (Molyneux) and that there is no rape culture in the West (Southern)'.

Instead, Katherine Anderson focused on the concerns that Regional Facilities Auckland managers held about the security risk the event would pose to people and property.

Today she pointed out that the promotion company Axiomatic didn't tell the council about the mass protests that took place during the Australian leg of the tour.

"The Auckland event was the only event of the Australasian tour for which Axiomatic had publicised the venue details more than 24 hours out from the event," she said.

"At the Australian events, even at that point, the venue was announced only to ticket holders."

Speaking outside of court, Mr Williams told RNZ he knew nothing of the views of Ms Southern and Mr Molyneux, and was only taking this action to overturn what was a dangerous precedent.

"This is somewhat unusual in New Zealand but pretty common around the world - it's public-interest litigation," he said.

"We're not seeking money from Auckland Council, we're seeking a declaration that what the council did was wrong so that in the future councils must take into account freedom of association, freedom of speech and freedom of thought before they use health and safety as a trump card to cancel a speaker."

Mr Williams pointed out that some members of the Free Speech Coalition were in fact left-leaning, for example, the political commentator Chris Trotter.

"The whole point of free speech is protecting speech you don't agree with," he said.

Justice Jagose reserved his decision.