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Is it now OK to say ‘bullshit’?


Free speech, by its definition, cannot be constrained.

You can be forgiven for thinking, in these Trump-esque times, that the political left has become the new right in terms of speech censorship, while the ‘right’ the new counter-culture baying against the establishment.

Which was just the opposite in those days when the current Auckland mayor and I were protesting the likes of our country’s involvement in the Vietnam War, albeit unknown to each other and at opposite ends of the country. Back then you could also be arrested for saying ‘bullshit’ in public.

Current Invercargill Mayor Tim Shadbolt was arrested 33 times during his youthful political protest days, and most famously for saying the word ‘bullshit’.

In 1972, visiting Aussie academic Germaine Greer, plugging her first book The Female Eunuch, mentioned ‘bullshit’ in her Auckland Town Hall address and was convicted and fined $45, plus $11.50 costs. Departing our shores she called us; “An odd country with a curious sensibility”.

Kiwi censorship made world headlines in 1967 when our movie theatres screening Ulysses were told to segregate audiences by gender. You can find a hilarious photo online of that achieved by a huge rope down the middle of theatre seats with amused wives, sisters and girlfriends on one side, and dads, brothers and boyfriends on the other.

In these days of easy and uncontrolled global internet access, censorship has mostly moved on from sex, violence, and social subversiveness to focus on a new age of ‘Alt’ politics and culture/ethnicity intolerance.

And over the past few months three such ‘censorship’ incidents have galvanised us.

Two of these censorship incidents involved local councils and the other a university. In common, they used health and safety (code for threat of violence) as their censorship weapon.


One episode involved an amateur historian called Bruce Moon, who was invited by the Nelson Institute back in April to speak on our history. He was going to talk about his interpretations of the Treaty (or treaties) of Waitangi. It was reportedly canned over “health and safety” reasons. Moon says he wasn’t directly told what the nature of the ‘complaints’ was, but he interpreted the move as “brutal censorship”.

In July, Auckland Council banned a commercial speaking tour, on health and safety grounds, that had been planned by two relatively obscure (I hadn’t heard of them anyway) Canadians who had, through an event organiser, booked the publicly-owned Bruce Mason Centre. Unwittingly, news of this sent many of us searching the internet to hear what they had to say.

This council act, confused by opinionated official tweeting, founded a new lobby group called the Free Speech Coalition, made up of both politically left and right supporters. The coalition quickly engaged Auckland Council in the High Court over purported “capitulation to the thugs” under Section 14 of the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990, and the Human Rights Act. It has also set its legal sights on Massey University over the same issue. Was it not Helen Keller who said, the highest result of education is tolerance?

A substantive hearing involving Auckland Council was due in the High Court this month.

There’s been a lot of media coverage and howling opinion over these incidents, but I think ex-MP Peter Dunne has summed up this modern ‘bullshit-equese’ censorship situation succinctly.

“Free speech, by its definition, cannot be constrained. It is an expression of our free will as human beings, the right to be right, and the right to be wrong, a capacity that distinguishes humanity from every other form of life.

“Where free speech poses a risk to public order, the rule of law should apply, as in every other situation. It never should be left to the arbitrary judgment and prejudice of any particular official to determine.”

Tena koe Peter, and I will add a quote from the Dalai Lama, “In the practice of tolerance, one’s enemy is the best teacher.”

This article was first published in the September 2018 issue of NZ Local Government Magazine.

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