Saturday, June 22

Rotorua council and free speech

The move by Rotorua Lakes Council this week to cancel its ‘Rainbow Story Time’ – an event held in the public library where drag queens read to children – on grounds that participants may be at risk of violence from protestors is spurious and irresponsible.

This is a clear failure on the part of local government to observe one of the most essential elements of its statutory obligations: to uphold the right of all citizens to free speech.

Now some might wonder if this case really matters all that much. Drag queens reading to kids in local libraries isn’t widely supported by the NZ public, provoking reactions ranging from incredulity to disgust, so to many of us it might seem that shutting down such activities in a council venue is a minor necessary evil. What’s the worst that could happen? A few drag queens and activists take offense?

Well, in the West we’ve learned the hard way how things can backfire when we don’t uphold free speech rights for even the most controversial, unconventional members of society. When we have consistently applied the golden rule to our system of civil liberties – in the sense of letting others speak just as you would want them to let you speak – it has allowed for unparalleled periods of human flourishing. While it certainly isn’t always easy, it bears fruit. In contrast, one of the most depressingly familiar lessons from historical experience is that public officials tend to favour saving their own necks over their duty to uphold free speech rights.

The claim that certain types of speech might provoke unmanageable security threats is being used all too often by public and private organisations in NZ. It is a seriously flawed approach for two reasons.

Firstly, we have laws and a police force for dealing with threats of harassment and physical violence. Opponents can voice their opposition by various means, from arguing their case by writing to the council, through to peacefully protesting outside an event. That is their lawful right and it too must be upheld so long as they exercise that right peacefully.

Secondly, capitulating to intimidation only emboldens those who would force others to be silent. If genuine threats are being made in respect to an event, government both local and central should be championing the rule of law, not cowering in response to threats of lawless behaviour or cynically employing cancellation as a tactic in order to cry ‘victim’ so as to rally their base of supporters to a particular cause.

Participants involved in free speech events must be protected from harassment and physical violence. Supposedly insurmountable concerns regarding an event’s “safety profile” make for an all-too-convenient escape clause, an excuse often presented by organisations without any specific evidence and designed not so much to prevent physical harm to the public as to prevent harm to the careers and reputations of those in charge.

Of course, some will say that we’ve overlooked the welfare of the children attending these events and have been carried away up into the rarefied air of an individualistic ideal. Not so. Child safety absolutely matters. But the event is being run with parents in attendance and therefore they are responsible for childcare. And society must balance questions of welfare with competing rights such as parental discretion. I would highly recommend people read what the Free Speech Union’s chief executive Jonathan Ayling has argued concerning this specific issue in relation to a similar drag queen story time held at Auckland’s Avondale Library last year.

Many of us are prepared to listen to the presentation of a persuasive argument supported by evidence that these kinds of events do not qualify as legitimate expressions of free speech. But if no compelling case can be made then take some consolation in the fact that if there is clear harm likely to be caused to children at such an event existing laws will almost certainly be applicable in stopping the event from going ahead.  In the meantime you can use your own free speech right to protest, just make sure you do it peacefully.

Personally, as a parent I think drag queens reading to young kids in a public library is a really bad idea. But that is my personal stance and under the law insufficient reason to silence someone. The NZ Bill of Rights Act 1990 protects a person’s freedom to impart or receive views in a public or private place so long as they do not contravene laws like those concerned with child protection – even if I think those parents are crazy for taking their kids along to listen.

So too, whether they like it or not, public officials at Rotorua Lakes Council have a job to do, and part of that job means sticking up for the rights of people with whom I may disagree. If they fail in their duty to the few, they will ultimately fail the rest of us.