Who’s the menace?
I was asked about Green MP Golriz Ghahraman’s stance on free speech. In her own words, “It is vital that the public is involved in a conversation about what speech meets the threshold for being regulated, and what mix of enforcement tools should be used.”
I believe that such an idea, and by extension politicians who promote it, is a danger to our free society. When asked about Ghahraman’s position, in the middle of a 15-minute radio interview, I responded that I thought she was a ‘menace to freedom.’
What has followed has been extraordinary. It has been a lesson in how beat-ups and witch-hunts occur, and why it’s so important that we retain laws that allow us to express ourselves freely. By Tuesday afternoon I was being asked by media if I was responsible for Ghahraman requiring a security detail. It was clearly a rhetorical question.
Politicians, journalists and other establishment figures have lined up to denounce my comment.
National’s position is that being nice to people who threaten free speech is more important than defending freedom itself. The Greens have said it’s my fault that a few nutcases are threatening an MP. The Commonwealth Women Parliamentarians wrote, asking me to apologise for my comment. I should have known it was not a sincere gesture because the letter was duly released to the media, who happily published it with barely a response from me. Other women MPs told me they’d known nothing about it.
Surprisingly, Trevor Mallard went on TV and said I was a bully. The Speaker is supposed to be Parliament’s neutral referee.
A number of journalists have attacked me. The media should be the loudest cheerleaders for freedom of expression. Their job relies on freedom of expression, and freedom and democracy rely on the media doing their job.
Were it not for Act, Parliament would be sleepwalking towards tighter speech laws. The media wouldn’t bat an eyelid. Only a few brave academics might raise their heads above the parapet.
There is something not right about this situation. If my comment endangered Ghahraman, then the response of media and politicians has multiplied its airplay exponentially. That response has been driven by the very people accusing me of endangering Ghahraman.
Because I do not think anyone should be endangered for engaging in political debate, I am reluctant to respond any further, but it’s difficult when the very people who say they’re concerned are using the situation to attack me politically. After all, the media cited a ‘source,’ then Ghahraman herself, when reporting the new security arrangements and attributing them to me.
My detractors believe that expressing a genuinely held view on an important issue makes me responsible for threats of violence. They are wrong. My comments do not come close to giving me such responsibility. And the current law is easily on my side.
This belief absolves the real perpetrators — those making the threats — of responsibility. It also introduces the worrying implication that some MPs are unable to fully participate or be criticised because there are violent threats. It’s a belief that allows violent thugs to set the agenda.
The response to my comment proves we cannot trust government to enforce hate speech laws. Imagine if the state had even greater powers to punish speech at its disposal. Some state agency would now be using that power to investigate and punish a sitting MP’s genuinely-held views.
Hate speech laws turn debate into a popularity contest, where the winners get to silence views they don’t like by using the power of the state. Tighter restrictions on speech can only mean giving some agency the power to punish people for saying things that do not incite harm but are merely offensive or distasteful. In other words, what you can think is determined by what is popular.
Act will continue to defend the critical principle that nobody should ever be punished by the power of the state on the basis of opinion.