As of today, the Free Speech Coalition is no more. But we’re not giving in to the enemies of free speech — to the contrary. We are delighted to announce the launch of our bigger and better effort: The Free Speech Union.
The name is not ironic. One of the early wins of the trade union movement was the limited work day – that when you knocked off after 8 hours, you were no longer a servant of the employer class. With the enemies of free speech now going after people’s employment, it is a principle we need to re-assert.
We think it says crisply just what is now needed to defend freedom of speech. We need to stand with people being intimidated, cancelled, deplatformed, piled on by social media, doxxed and threatened with bankruptcy if they seek legal protection.
When we started the Free Speech Coalition in 2018, most of us thought freedom of speech was fundamental in New Zealand’s traditions, our culture, our constitution, and our law. We thought that all we needed to do was ensure that the enemies of free speech knew they could end up in court if they abused their power. The High Court decision essentially mocked that faith. And while last week’s Court of Appeal decision was better, it was hardly reassuring.
In the terrifyingly short period since the Coalition came together to oppose Mayor Goff’s claim to be free to use control of Council facilities to suppress unwelcome debate, New Zealand has seen cancel culture become mainstream in our media, universities, and public institutions.
At the same time, the tactics of those who wish to suppress free public discourse have changed. We are increasingly seeing online activists and social media mobs target people’s employment in order to silence them:
- A Massey University academic was subject to a disciplinary process for satirising gender pronoun enforcement in his weekly newspaper column.
- A high school teacher was investigated by the Teaching Council because he wore a MAGA hat to an Auckland Black Lives Matter protest.
- An Auckland Transport staffer was harassed in the media and publicly denounced by his employer for a comment made in a private Facebook group.
In short, we have to revitalise the cultural foundations for freedom of speech: we need to make free speech fashionable again. We have to defend tolerance.
Courts may still be an essential battleground. But many lawyers are now part of an elite political consensus that freedom of speech is passe – that they are justified in ending it to protect their values from challenge by outsiders. They believe that ends justify means. To them it’s OK to gag speech that might mislead ordinary people away from paths defined by their moral betters.
So we are gearing up to help people defend themselves, and others, against being de-platformed, cancelled, intimidated, and suppressed. The most immediate and powerful support will often be mutual support from fellow workers – people who may be feeling too threatened at the moment to speak up, or who have no practical way to gauge how many share their concerns. Hence, we’ve registered as a trade union.
There is precedent, a similar group in the United Kingdom was launched early last year by an associate editor of The Spectator, Toby Young, and Douglas Murray. We are launching the New Zealand Free Speech Union as the first ‘sister group’ using the name under licence.
But why a real union?
New Zealand law on unions is not restrictive. Our primary purpose remains protecting and promoting the human right of free speech.
The union model has advantages:
- the right to access employer’s property to conduct union business. The next time Massey University bans Don Brash or Martyn Bradbury because what they might say is ‘unsafe’ – we may organise a union event on campus. That could include giving those they want to de-platform the legal right to enter as delegates of the Union.
- employers can’t stop people from joining our union – if they do, they’ll be in breach of employment law. We know of instances where universities have scolded academics for their public support of free speech / our campaign. If they try to do that with the Free Speech Union, they’ll be breaching employment law.
The union model also indicates our intention to build capacity to decide quickly on members’ legal position. Employment law is not reserved for lawyers, but some cases will need expertise in other areas (for example, defamation). Unions can advise members, without being treated as offering lawyer services to the public. Long term, the Union will need this capability.
And membership isn’t limited to just employees
We’ve set up the Union to allow anyone who agrees with our Statement of Values to join – including the self-employed, retirees, or people who are already a member of another union (you can be a member of your existing union, and the Free Speech Union).
Will you join us?
The enemies of free speech are now openly using their powers in government, online, in leadership positions in the media, in dominant businesses, and within the cultural elite. Defenders of freedom of speech are likely still to be in the majority. But they will not be effective as a silent majority. That’s why we’re coming together with the express goal of building solidarity.