Freedom of speech - the more you know, the less you fear

9:20 pm on 11 July 2018

By Craig Tuck*

Opinion - Ideas cause reactions. An idea can incite or excite - either for or against what is being said. However, the result is debate - not hate.

Lauren Southern and Stefan Molyneux, who cancelled a public talk after Mr Goff banned them from council venues have hateful ideas, and to a small segment of society they may resonate strongly. For the rest of us though, they may well serve to remind and clarify our own - perhaps more reasonable values.

Lauren Southern and Stefan Molyneux

Lauren Southern and Stefan Molyneux Photo: Supplied / YouTube screen shot

In law, speech is thought of in terms of process and substance. This means that while the ideas presented may be hateful in substance, the process by which the ideas are transmitted is sound.

Laws against hate speech blur this distinction. The result is that the right to freedom of speech is eroded.

Hate speech has been used to punish and exclude people for hundreds of years (including recently in France). It has been free speech - a reliable friend to minorities - that has stood firm to protect them and their views.

As a society, we must be careful not to destroy one right in pursuit of the protection of another. As Noam Chomsky wrote:

"It is a truism, hardly deserving discussion, that the defence of the right of free expression is not restricted to ideas one approves of, and that it is precisely in the case of ideas found most offensive that these rights must be most vigorously defended."

Censorship or punishment of hate speech often leads to repression of free speech - the equivalent of spraying the weeds and hitting the surrounding green grass. It breeds fear, conformity and reduces debate and discussion.

By contrast, freedom of speech is an enabler of other rights - social and economic as well as cultural and educational. Indeed, the history of human development of thought and creativity is the history of free thought and expression.

Freedom of speech is a prerequisite and a facilitator - a foundation and cornerstone of a democratic civil society. Arguably, it's one of the most important discussions that a society can have: Freedom of expression is the basis of many other civil rights. However, protecting freedom of speech means that you have to accept the right of people to say hateful things.

There are a couple of things to point out here though. First, the right to freedom of speech doesn't carry with it a corresponding duty to listen. Arguably, one of the most efficient ways of dealing with people such as Ms Southern and Mr Molyneux is simply to ignore them.

Auckland mayor Phil Goff

Auckland mayor Phil Goff says he won't "aid and abet people who spout racist nonsense by providing them with a venue." Photo: RNZ / Dan Cook

Second, while New Zealand has no law specifically against hate speech, this is not to say that hateful speech will not be punished by law. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights states that "any advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence shall be prohibited by law" (article 20).

New Zealand has signed up to this Treaty, and has implemented it.

The Human Rights Act makes inciting racial disharmony by way of publication or speech unlawful. The Crimes Act has provisions which also provide for potentially severe punishments for those who seek to harm others through their words.

In other words, In New Zealand we have the laws that we need to ensure that anyone who would seek to do criminal harm while hiding behind the right to freedom of expression can - and will - be prosecuted and punished.

By creating strong laws which prohibit and punish hate speech, hateful ideas, and those who express them, go underground. They don't simply vanish but may instead find other more harmful ways of emerging.

Fundamentally, the point is that one doesn't have to agree with what a person says to accept that they are entitled to say it. It is as simple as that well-known biblical enjoinder to "do unto others".

Are we so unsure of our beliefs and values that a couple of alt-right antagonists could pose a genuine threat to New Zealand society? We can celebrate the processes which allow freedom of speech, without needing to endorse the substance of what they say.

In the end, the more you know the less you fear.

Testing the assumptions and statements carried in hate speech through free speech enables education, reason and analysis. In a modern world where fear is a driver of law and policy, freedom of speech will promote empathy and reason.

* Craig Tuck is a human rights lawyer - transnational criminal justice specialist. He has been counsel in many high profile and leading cases - including those involving the death penalty abroad. He is trained in psychology and law, with a masters in criminology from Cambridge University. His work in human trafficking has received commendations from the UN.

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