Local Government Magazine
Guest editorialLG MagazineLocal Democracy

DEMOCRACY & FREE SPEECH – two sides of the same coin

By Jonathan Ayling, chief executive, Free Speech Union.
Democracy and free speech are two sides of the same coin. It is hard to imagine a society that truly allows free speech that is governed undemocratically (hence the aversion every dictator has had to free speech). Equally, what democracy (rule by the people) exists when the state silences citizens’ voices?

Concerningly, while free speech may have been a yawn-inducing cliche in the past for most New Zealanders, today the notion is considered radical, and quite possibly oppressive and this is to our great peril. This perspective has even infiltrated local government. Yet, respect for free speech by our local representatives is important to protect our democracy and to set a tone of debate which is robust and tolerant. 

The Free Speech Coalition (the predecessor of the Free Speech Union) was not founded because of actions opposing free speech by central government or by universities (though, both are very likely candidates for censorious tendencies). It was censorship from local government, when Auckland Mayor, Phil Goff, de-platformed international speakers Stefan Molyneux and Lauren Southern which led to a group of academics, lawyers, and writers to join together to defend free speech. And a diverse group it was too, with left-leaning journalist Chris Trotter standing alongside former-ACT MP Stephen Franks, lawyer Jordan Williams and academic Dr. David Cumin joining with animal rights activist, Rachel Poulian and writer Dane Giraud. 

While our work since 2018 has covered most sectors of public speech, the Free Speech Union now continues to be drawn into fighting against anti-speech work by local government. We have been approached by dozens of local council representatives (councillors and mayors alike), outlining the ‘weaponisation’ of codes of conduct by other local politicians or (more frequently) by council bureaucrats. 

Requirements for respect, civility, and politeness are used to undermine the arguably weightier goals of local government: representation, truth, and accountability. The abuse of codes of conduct highlights the inherent weakness of censorship. We all agree that clearly some speech is harmful, repulsive, and condemnable. 

However, it is much less clear that gagging others who contravene our sense of what is harmful, repulsive, or condemnable, is effective in undermining the harm we believe is caused. The reason free speech is a cornerstone of democratic stability and accountability is not because all speech is good and helpful. It is simply because deciding which speech is not good or helpful is perhaps the very hardest of questions. We must all participate in democracy, despite our differences (maybe even because of our differences) to produce a plural and tolerant society. 

That is why the Inclusive Campaigning Guidelines released by Meng Foon (Race Relations Commissioner) and Local Government New Zealand (LGNZ) are, in my mind, so divisive. These guidelines might appear innocuous on the surface – they promote important principles such as inclusion and diversity. 

However, under closer scrutiny these guidelines reveal themselves for what they really are: an attempt to suppress debate around crucial issues. In this way, the Guidelines chill the speech of council candidates, and impoverish the election debate. That’s why we released our own Truly Tolerant Campaigning Guidelines. 

Our guidelines make it clear that proposed Government policy must never be a “no-go zone” for political debate. How communities are governed and how their local assets are managed is of crucial importance to ratepayers, and candidates have every right to facilitate frank discussions about what this may look like, and how it will impact New Zealanders. 

If we are standing, as some have said, at a crossroads for race relations in this country, we need to have as thorough and as far-reaching a debate as possible on the issues. Will feelings be hurt? Will people overstep the mark? Without doubt. But narrowing the parameters of debate won’t make any ill-feeling go away. It will just make the already embittered feel they were conspired against and denied a voice, and they would have a case. 

We hear plenty of talk about how to involve more people in the democratic process, and yet LGNZ and Foon seem more than happy to drive some people away. That’s hardly inclusive or respectful of diversity. We also make it clear in our guidelines that while respect is crucial to healthy debate, what one person calls “respectable” is often subjective so cannot be imposed on political candidates. In fact, political debates already have a measure for what is considered respectable and worthy of representing our communities and it’s called voting.

Both these examples of speech suppression above, the ‘weaponisation’ of codes of conduct, and the chilling impact of “Campaigning Guidelines”, culminate in a third example which the Ombudsman has recently begun to investigate: closed-door council meetings.

If we are standing, as some have said, at a crossroads for race relations in this country, we need to have as thorough and as far-reaching a debate as possible on the issues. Will feelings be hurt? Will people overstep the mark? Without doubt. 

Again, the practice of councillors hiding unpopular views or speech from the public is not simply a question of accountability. The right to free speech also guarantees the right to information.

When local representatives claim to know better and don’t trust constituents with information (speech), these politicians strike at the foundation on which they stand. 

They undermine a system of government that elevates their voices, not necessarily because of the merits of their views, but because of the public view that is expressed through them as representatives. 

We decry the decline in engagement in local government. Why should we be surprised when we apparently have such a low view of our communities? Is it any wonder that the purpose and legitimacy of our local representatives are questioned, when candidates are told to hide their opinions and affiliations from the public. 

Not all speech is helpful – some is incredibly harmful, but almost none is worse for our democracy than the effect censorship and political gagging has.   

Democracy and free speech are two sides of the same coin. If we perceive free speech as problematic at best, and possibly downright oppressive, we will be forced to constrain and manipulate democracy in such a way that it is no longer truly the people’s voice. It is what the people believe they are allowed to say. 

No, until we want to do away with democracy itself, we must stand by free speech, the right for even our enemies to say that which we hate the most. 

We must respect and celebrate the ability for the public, as a whole, to decide what issues are on the table, what speech is allowed.

As Chris Trotter recently claimed, “Our firm position must always be that the only body qualified to decide who should, and should not, be elected to public office is the electorate itself. That is to say, you and I – the voters.” LG

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