The principle of free speech cannot be over-rated

Joanna Norris
The Press

Joanna Norris

OPINION: 

Freedom of expression includes the right to say things other people don't want to hear, writes Joanna Norris.

As the bodies of slain cartoonists were being removed from their office in Paris in January, New Zealanders enthusiastically supported the dead by embracing the phrase #JeSuisCharlie.

Across the globe people gathered at rallies to speak for the cartoonists and editors and in doing so ensured the victims' pointed brand of freedom of expression was not curtailed by murder.

Following the killings, I wrote a piece for New Zealand publications arguing that the murder of journalists represented the worst possible attack on freedom of expression and media freedom. While the attack may have been motivated by a desire to silence satirists, it was likely to have the opposite effect, I argued. Journalists across the world would not be chilled by the attacks.

But a few moments after the piece was published on stuff.co.nz and nzherald.co.nz, I was struck by a four-word comment left by a commenter.

"Free speech is overrated," he wrote.

At the time I passed the comment off as the hopeful rant of an attention-seeking troll, but I have given it a great deal of thought since.

As the #JeSuisCharlie hashtags sunk from view and New Zealanders went about their lives, I wondered just how much Kiwis valued freedom of expression and the related media freedom? Do we know what it means? Do we know what threatens it?

This is a debate I fear is often taken for granted by New Zealanders, who view it as an arcane discussion for countries such as China, North Korea and less enlightened Gulf States.

At its very simplest freedom of expression gives people the right to express themselves in a manner of their choosing. Whether you want to write a letter to an editor, write a column, dance in a park, or even burn a flag, your freedom to express yourself is protected by law (unless your flag burning results in public disorder).

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The Bill of Rights Act gives New Zealanders these rights. Specifically it says this: "Everyone has the right to freedom of expression, including the freedom to seek, receive, and impart information and opinions of any kind in any form."

There are of course limits, for example your right to express yourself must not result in a crime,  but generally our courts have erred towards freedom of expression when balancing competing principles.

When the commenter wrote "free-speech is over-rated", he was, of course, expressing himself. Perhaps that was his ironic intention, perhaps his comment was, in fact, satire. But the point is, that in New Zealand, we are deeply fortunate to have legislation that protects our freedoms.

But from time-to-time issues arise that quietly threaten the rights of New Zealanders to express themselves.

On such threat is a rising tide of offence-taking and indignation, particularly in social media where a discussion can move swiftly and viciously, influencing views and actions.

Smart young Australian philosopher Richard King, author of On Offence: The Politics of Indignation, says increasingly people are claiming it is their right not to be offended. People are not seeking freedom from offence but the freedom to ensure their view prevails, ie they are arguing their right not to be offended overrides the free speech of others.

The echo-chamber of a platform such as Twitter, meanwhile, can silence dissenting views in the face of a vicious mob attack on those viewed to have erred from a 'right-thinking' view in the minds of the mob.

The, at times, sanctimonious Twittersphere can be quick to condemn and swift to move on.

But even this presents a conundrum, because members of the  mob are themselves exercising their rights to freedom of expression.

The solutions lie at the heart of the issue itself. Freedom of expression, which underpins media freedom, should be valued and protected. People need to know they are free to state their views, whilst also respecting the rights of others to express theirs, even when those views are not mainstream, or are offensive to a great many people.

Whether you are a fringe activist, member of the power elite or lonely bigot, you have the same right to express yourself. New Zealanders can do this in the knowledge that we are contributing to a marketplace of ideas that can be debated and discussed in a free media. And in doing so, we must all respect the rights of others to have a view different than our own.

Free speech cannot be overrated, nor can the right to say it is.

Joanna Norris is chair of the New Zealand Media Freedom Committee and editor of The Press. The Canon Media Awards held on May 22 celebrate media freedom.

 - The Press

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