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Free speech film sparks dialogue

A recent showing of short documentary film Last Words at The Screening Room in Masterton’s Kuripuni village culminated in a spirited discussion about the importance of free speech.

Attracting an audience of about 50, the film documents Danish lawyer and free speech expert Jacob Mchangama during a visit to New Zealand last year to draw attention to what he viewed as problems with the government’s proposed reform of hate speech laws [legislation that’s since been dropped by Prime Minister Chris Hipkins].

Both Mchangama’s trip and the documentary were funded by the Free Speech Union [FSU], an 80,000-strong organisation that advocates for the importance of “free speech for all”.

The screening also featured short speeches by FSC chief executive and Carterton resident Jonathan Ayling and Karl du Fresne, Masterton resident and former editor of The Dominion newspaper.

During a Q&A session after the film, both men emphasised why they believe free speech is a crucial component of civil society.

“When we stand with a mortician in their workplace, who faced employment discipline for misgendering a corpse; when we defend a sales woman who was fired for posting a personal political view on Facebook; when we stand up for a teachers right to submit to Council consultations; or for the right of community lobby groups to use public venues – this is the claim that we are making: we can do far worse than allow those we disagree with to speak,” Ayling said.

“Through censorship we will inevitably do far worse. Censorship is never the tidy solution many claim it to be.”

That said, both Ayling and du Fresne also indicated what qualifies as “free speech” is not an entirely clear-cut issue.

Asked whether they view Rob Campbell losing his government-appointed roles last week for publicly stating his political opinion as an impingement on his freedom of speech, Ayling noted there are already appropriate curbs on speech – including incitement to violence, threats and libel – and said this case is similar: “Justifiable limits can be placed on the speech of employees, especially within the political context where confidence in public servants is so crucial for trust in the institutions of state.”

For his part, du Fresne declared himself conflicted on the matter.

“The free speech absolutist in me says he should be free to say what he thinks, but I also acknowledge that he accepted a high-profile, well-paid public position subject to the clear requirement that he should be politically impartial,” du Fresne said.

“It might sound contradictory, but I actually applaud the government for sacking him because I think it’s important that governments be seen to enforce important principles and hold powerful people accountable.

“I also don’t for a moment buy Campbell’s defence that he made his comments about co-governance as a private citizen. He’s a public figure and he was highly visible on LinkedIn. Who’s he trying to kid? He knows the rules.”

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