By Tony Kan…

On June 16 2019, at the invitation of NZ Friends of Israel Association Inc, Professor Paul Moon spoke about freedom of speech amidst the ongoing public debate on how to react to hate speech rhetoric in the aftermath of the Christchurch massacre.

The shock of the massacre, the murderer’s manifesto with its potentially devastating ramifications on public discussion and debate, and ongoing promulgation of a need for stronger hate speech legislation have combined to fuel interest in this topic.

Not surprisingly, Professor Moon found himself speaking to a full house at the Turanga Christchurch Central Library.

Being a professor of history, it was not surprising that Moon gave numerous historical examples of how suppressing free and open debate had held back the development of Western society, and how the pioneers of the Reformation and the Renaissance had ushered in a new era of progress.

We were then given a survey of current legislation that impact freedom of speech in New Zealand: The Human Rights Act, the Harmful Digital Communications Act, and the Defamation Act.

Each contributed toward prohibiting activities commonly associated with hate speech but none coming up with a robust definition of what hate speech might be.

And this is the principle weakness of hate speech legislation.

The lack of a robust definition gives authorities too much license to shutter uncomfortable public discourse.

But it is from the tap of confronting, uncomfortable and disruptive ideas that society maintains its vigour.

And it is through freedom of speech that public discourse enables society to become aware of ideas, to test them, and to identify what is good.

There was a lively Q&A session and, as is often the case, it is here that much colour is added to the picture.

Hate speech featured in the stories of the Holocaust and the Rwandan genocide. Doesn’t it seem obvious that hate speech should be prohibited?

On the other hand, both regimes had previously prohibited freedom of speech and suppressed opposition.

Furthermore, NZFOI would add that the Weimar Republic had hate speech Legislation in place, yet the Nazi Party was able to use them as a tool for propaganda, citing a “conspiracy” against Nazis and implying that the Nazi party had answers to society’s problems that the German government didn’t want the public to hear.  People flocked to Nazi rallies.

Others were apprehensive of further immigration from societies that have normative practices that most New Zealanders would find repugnant.

Although these practices might be currently illegal, our society has shown an appetite for showing deference to minorities.

It was conceivable that these practices, such as vaginal circumcision, forced marriages and honour killings, could become permissible as legal exceptions on cultural grounds.

Talk of Sharia Law being adopted in some parts of the UK added to these fears.

Yet, it was felt that voicing such concerns were likely to make them appear paranoid and bigoted. How could they exercise their right to free speech, take part in legitimate public debate without being pilloried, ostracized or even attacked?

By the time the meeting ended there was a consensus that respectful discussion and debate that focused on the merits of opposing arguments rather than attacking the people who made them, was the best way for society to build solutions to life’s problems and to discredit hate speech.

Within that collegial atmosphere, Dr Duncan Webb, MP for Christchurch Central, introduced himself and said he would be happy to openly debate Dr David Cumin.

John Minto, after introducing himself as an advocate of Palestinian rights, said that if NZFOI heard of a supporter of Palestinians rights crossing the line into racism, he would like NZFOI to contact him, so he could have a word with that person. Perhaps there is hope for humankind after all.

Professor Paul Moon is a Professor of History at the Auckland University of Technology.

Tony Kan is President of NZ Friends of Israel Association Inc and a Christchurch-based business consultant.

This article was first published in the June issue of the NZ Friends of Israel Association newsletter. It is republished here with kind permission from the NZFOI.