Friday, July 19

Councils answer to the people

It’s a bit ironic when a ratepayer is denied use of a public venue, a publicly funded
venue. But we’ve seen it happen over and over again. Whether it’s protestors using the
‘thugs veto’, or staff who’ve decided they made a mistake when accepting a booking,
bureaucrats and council staff fall into the trap (knowingly or not) of thinking they can
assert themselves over others.

Yes, it can be hard to see views you deeply disagree with platformed. And it can be hard
to have people disapprove of your decisions. But when you suppress someone else’s
speech, you have another problem on your hands, especially in a publicly funded

We’ve seen a pattern of council staff across the country picking and choosing who they
allow to speak at publicly funded venues. Recently, it was Marlborough District Libraries
not allowing Let Kids Be Kids to book a meeting room on the basis that they didn’t fit,
ironically, with their so-called ‘inclusive’ values. (More on this soon.) And, just this week
it was Citizens Advice Bureau cancelling The New Zealand Women’s Right Party’s
booking at a New Plymouth District Council venue due to public complaints.

But these aren’t new scenarios for us.

A couple of years back, Palmerston North City Council told Speak Up For Women that
instead of the event they intended to hold, a debate needed to be had so all sides got
their say. This isn’t a requirement for holding an event at a publicly funded venue, by the
way. We took them to court, and won. And we’ve been able to draw on this ever since
when councils have pulled similar moves. (So, Citizens Advice Bureau, you’ve been

Last year, Taupo District Council cancelled Julian Batchelor’s event ‘Stop co-
governance’ over spurious ‘health and safety’ claims, Tauranga City Council cancelled a

screening of ‘What is a Women’ (we never did find out on what grounds), and this year,
Wellington City Council threatened to cancel the Inflection Point conference on the
basis that it didn’t fit with the city’s ‘inclusive’ policies.

You might notice there is a theme to some of the perspectives being cancelled. We’re
often accused of being one-sided because of this, but these are the opportunities
handed to us. Yet, when we defended the right for Rainbow Storytime events to
commence around the country, we got backlash as well. As we always say when people
get upset over whose voices we defend, ‘Wait until the shoe is on the other foot’.
Defending free speech would mean nothing if it was only for a select set of views.

You can’t silence someone else and not expect it to come back on you eventually. Free
speech is consistent, and we must strive to keep it that way, or it doesn’t work.
Too often, councils find excuses for cancelling views they don’t like, or they bow to
pressure to cancel views that others don’t like. (See how it’s a slippery slope?)
But back on Marlborough District Council – they came through. We threatened legal
action, but didn’t have to take it. Not only did the council agree to write a public apology
to Let Kids Be Kids and say yes to us holding a training session for their staff on
upholding ratepayers’ rights, they’ve also agreed to amend their unlawful,
discriminatory policy. Watch this space.

They saw our past legal wins and knew they didn’t stand a chance.

Now, we await a response from Citizens Advice Bureau. We’ve warned them that if they
don’t honour their commitment to The New Zealand Women’s Rights Party’s booking,
we will consider legal action.

We’ve contributed significantly to this area in case law already, but clearly there is still
work to be done.

Our current law gives too much room in the first place for manipulation and making
exaggerated claims in order to suppress certain views. We need to get the word out that
council staff, like librarians and publicly funded venue managers, are not the thought or
speech police. They do not, and should not, have the authority to pick and choose
who’s platformed. This is not a fight we should keep coming up against.

That’s why we drafted the Protection of the Freedom of Expression Bill, along with
former district court judge Dr. David Harvey, to ensure all Kiwis have access to publicly
funded venues without spurious ‘health and safety’ claims being weaponised to silence
them. We’re proud that our drafted legislation was recently picked up by New Zealand
First as a Member’s Bill, and we’re convinced more than ever, that the Bill is the right
next step to see free speech upheld in our publicly funded venues.

If it weren’t for the Free Speech Union, cancellations and refused bookings would be
swept under the rug. But councils are on notice. We won’t back down.