Guest blog: The current state of free speech and debate in New Zealand

I attended two events within this past week. The two events were similar in nature – being that they hosted two speakers or more who had serious disagreements with one another on social and political issues – but both varied drastically in productivity in their discussions.

The first event was the Think Big Debate hosted at the University of Auckland between Don Brash and two others taking the view that PC culture has gone too far in limiting free speech, and Simon Wilson and two others taking the opposing view. This event was predictably, for the most part, unproductive. I say “predictably” because as soon as I arrived a few minutes before the event, there was a large group of hecklers – seemingly committed to social justice, screaming over loudspeakers and holding up signs saying “Hate Racism” and “Socialist” – as if any of the debaters were promoting racism and as if who controls the means to production had anything to do with this particular debate. Just before the event started, I observed the same group follow the crowd into the auditorium and organise themselves to sit in the same area, carrying their loudspeakers and signs with them. Just as we have seen in similar types of debates across the United States at the moment, the hecklers managed to take over the event and frustrate the diverse audience, who seemed to overwhelmingly welcome a healthy debate on issues that matter. Ironically, the hecklers won the debate for Brash all by themselves – proving his very point. He could have stayed home, watching his victory from the television in his living room.

The second event was by Think Inc. and was framed less as a debate but more as a discussion between Dr. Cornel West and Douglas Murray. As far as I can tell, Murray holds a few views that are detested more so than Brash by the types that tend to yell “bigot!” for their own social profit and virtue signaling (so-called ‘bigoteers’). But the bigoteers were nowhere to be found at this particular event – perhaps because the price of tickets to the event was not free as they were for the Brash debate, or perhaps because the event took place at the ASB Theatre, Aotea Centre rather than a public university so they did not learn about it. And perhaps, even if the bigoteers had known of the event and had brought their loudspeakers, the organisers would not have tolerated the event being ruined – especially for an audience that had forked over $100 per ticket to watch a productive event. The reader of this article may be noticing the public goods problem that arises with these types of events. On “public” land, we are often stuck tolerating intolerant people that ruin events for everyone in the name of allowing discourse. When the land on which debates take place is owned by everyone and no one at the same time, we have a much more difficult time finding an objective way of knowing who should be allowed to speak, where, when, and at what audible level. On our own front lawns (private property), by contrast, it is not much of a problem at all. Property owners that don’t like what is being said by someone can simply say to the person “Get off my land, or I’ll call the police.”

In summary, the event with West and Murray was a much more productive discussion/debate than was the university-hosted event that tolerated hecklers shouting at speakers and at the audience. West and Murray hold radically different views on a variety of issues, but they clearly understood, and most of the audience seemed to understand that not everyone that holds dissenting views from the mainstream is malevolent. Further, free speech is the vehicle for which we are able to sharpen our arguments and discover truth.

Blog content written by guest contributor, Emile Phaneuf,  20 August 2018