It seems almost impossible to get “freedom of speech” understood as a value. Too many people shouting and too much hot air. Defending the right to speak, in relation to people with minority or unpopular opinions, does not mean we agree with them. It means we want to avoid the far worse problem of arbitrarily controlling creative thought. Who would you appoint to be the sole judge for what you see or hear? Who do you believe should make up your own mind for you? Or are we all such bleating sheep that we are OK with being patronised this way?

Freedom of speech – the erosion

The Massey University Vice Chancellor, Jan Thomas has received little support from rational thinkers, including the Prime Minister, for removing Don Brash’s freedom of speech. Too easy to say he “supported” the visiting Canadians Stefan Molyneaux and Lauren Southern. I doubt he agrees with much of what they say. In fact he probably finds them repugnant. What he supports is the principle of free speech, as long as it does not incite hate or violence.

Freedom of speechThe day we justify censorship because we are worried someone MAY say something that does not coincide with our own precious beliefs has already come. It arrived in US universities some time ago and here it is in New Zealand. But don’t worry, you can always disguise or justify capricious authoritarianism by weasel words. Health and safety is a good bet, because no one can challenge you. Jan Thomas was quite crafty, though, because she pulled back another layer and referred to “security”.  Security sounds so responsible and so very caring. And it’s more circumspect and mainstream than health and safety. But it’s just another form of putting your hands over your ears and shouting. And we all know she was referring to safety. Gosh! Students being jostled by other students. We must protect them! How matronly.

 Time to grow up as a human race

My opinion is that Jan Thomas probably has some political views of her own that influenced her decision. Otherwise, why would she have used such a weak argument to stop cuddly old Don Brash? I’ve never heard him say a single offensive thing, let alone hateful. In any case, using health and safety is immature on two counts:

  1. It’s probably untrue. Predicting violence is as valid as predicting hate speech or incitement. Anyone can pull that one. By the way, Jan claimed that Don’s ideas “border on hate speech”. I’ve got news for Jan. Academia is obsessed with the word inappropriate. “Inappropriate” means we need to bend over backwards to avoid making anyone (usually a minority of some description), feel even a bit uncomfortable. Well, freedom of speech has a higher threshold than that. If you don’t upset at least a few people, you’re probably not interesting enough to listen to.
  2. If violence occurred, then there would be two opposing groups involved. In this case, let’s say neo-liberals who can’t tolerate anything but their own contrived beliefs and alt-right who are simplistic and angry. There’s your real problem. The left shouts with its hands over its ears and the right shouts with red mist in front of their eyes. Both sad cases. It’s why, in the “developed world”, the in-power political parties tend to oscillate between moderately right and moderately left. Neither the extreme left, nor extreme right has a workable ideology, so we compromise. But it doesn’t stop new extremists of both ends of the spectrum being born and raised every day. Get used to it.

Time to listen and hear

As a human race, we need to find ways to listen, discuss and agree to differ, even with people who clearly have marginal or extreme views. We may have historical and “proven” sets of ideas and values. But never take refuge in the illusion of your consensus view. There may be a small grain of truth or value in any view, and we deny ourselves the right to hear that at our peril. The fact that we find ourselves offended is not, in itself, a reason to censor. You don’t have a choice about being harmed if you are punched. But being offended is largely, if not completely, a choice you make. Grow up.

We need more people to value freedom of speech

It’s a fact of life that some people think very differently than the “mainstream”. It’s largely what has propelled the human race to develop scientific, philosophical, social and political progress. Very often, progress is accompanied by disruption of some sort. Martin Luther King wasn’t a mainstreamer. Nor was Hone Heke. In fact, they were very unpopular with the mainstream. The world generally looks back on them as heroes now. Not that I’m suggesting all who are different are correct. Far from it. But allowing yourself to hear what they are saying AT THE VERY LEAST gives each of us an authority by which to develop an informed judgement, rather than relying on what we assume we know. It’s like having an empty paper bag. You don’t actually know what shape or size it is until you put air into it.

I recommend this speech by the late, great Christopher Hitchens as a starting point and I will close with this quote from that speech: “Every time you silence someone, you make yourself a prisoner of your own action, because you deny yourself the right to hear something”.

And please let’s stop hiding behind health and safety when we really should be admitting to arbitrary censorship.


Simon Lawrence is Director of SafetyPro Limited.

Consulting for systems, audits, training in health and safety. Call 0800 000 267 for a welcoming chat, or email

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