COMMENT:

Don Brash, Alex Jones, Stefan Molyneux, Lauren Southern and Blair Cottrell have a few things in common: they're all white, express controversial political opinions and are being held up as martyrs in the free speech movement that is gaining momentum in New Zealand and abroad.

The past week has seen each of them denied a platform from which to express their views. And the diverse responses to those denials show how complex it can be deciding when someone should or shouldn't be given a platform.

This is illustrated in the two most recent examples, involving former National Party leader Brash in New Zealand and far-right activist Cottrell in Australia.

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Massey University's decision to disinvite Brash from speaking has been broadly slammed in New Zealand media (including by publications on the left), with most agreeing that he should have been permitted to say a few words, even if some people might have found those words objectionable.

The Aussie example provided a counterweight, with Sky News facing an onslaught of criticism for giving a platform to a man who previously expressed the view that Adolf Hitler's Mein Kampf should be distributed to schoolchildren. Ultimately, Sky apologised to the public, admitted it had erred and pulled the interview from all its online platforms.

The outrage surrounding Cottrell's appearance shows that most Australians expect a major broadcaster to make the editorial decision not to give oxygen to someone who has expressed sympathies for Hitler. In much the same way that Cottrell has the right to his views, the editors at a media company have the right to choose what they amplify through their platforms.

Anything goes

But the long-established editorial side of media has waned in the digital age. Over the past decade, the tech companies that have colonised the internet have provided possibly the purest manifestation of the quote often misattributed to Voltaire: "I wholly disapprove of what you say  —  and will defend to the death your right to say it."

Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, Google, Apple and YouTube have spawned an "anything goes" environment in which diversity of opinion and in-depth research has found an uncomfortable home alongside racism, sexism, falsehood and misinformation.

This was always going to have repercussions. We've seen a man fire a gun in a US pizza store after reading conspiracy theories about a paedophile ring run by Hillary Clinton. A family has been hounded over claims that they faked their child's death in the Sandy Hook massacre. Anti-Rohingya sentiment spread via social media has led to murder in Myanmar. And just in case you thought New Zealand was exempt, this week we had National's Judith Collins call on the Prime Minister to condemn France for passing legislation that supposedly allows for paedophilia.

After years of shirking responsibility and sidestepping moderation, some of the giants of the tech world have finally conceded that the harm caused by the free-for-all is too great to ignore. This week they took a significant step by deleting the accounts of conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, whose best hits include 9/11 conspiracy theories, Holocaust denial and anti-Semitism.

The move was immediately met by widespread concern over the idea that tech companies were essentially taking a stand in determining what was and wasn't appropriate to say. While that may be valid to some degree, it overlooks the importance of returning some of the editorial safeguards that historically tried to make sure people aren't harmed by what media companies amplify.

This balancing act is as old as free speech itself.

In a brilliant essay written for the Atlantic, Oxford academic Teresa Bejan writes about the continuous historical conflict between the ancient Greek principles of parrhesia, referring to the right to say what one pleases, and isegoria, which gives equal rights to citizens to participate in public debate.

Freedom v harm

Part of the reason why the New Zealand free speech debate has been so divisive is because the combatants are engaged in different arguments without realising it. While the Free Speech Coalition is focused strictly on the freedom aspect of speech, groups such as Auckland Peace Action stress the importance of equality and worry about the effect that speech might have on smaller groups. It's like Yanny and Laurel all over again, only this time with the words parrhesia and isegoria.

This is different from censorship in that it's about collectively bargaining as a society about what we think is acceptable and what isn't.

Indeed, lines of appropriateness are drawn by even the most ardent free speech evangelists. While alt-right provocateur Milo Yiannopolous was applauded - by some - for his frankness when he expressing transphobic, islamophobic and sexist views, supporters quickly turned on him when he appeared to defend paedophilia in a podcast dating back to 2016. His publisher pulled out of publishing his autobiography, alt-right Breitbart terminated his employment and he was no longer called on as a conservative voice by media corporations. The very institutions that gave him his power decided he had gone too far and pulled the rug from beneath him.

New rules

There are no hard and fast rules about what is appropriate, largely because that evolves and shifts according to people's sensibilities.

In the modern context, these sensibilities are often referred to as "political correctness" – another favourite target of the fiercest free speech acolytes. However, before joining the "PC gone mad" chorus, it's worth considering the positive impact political correctness has had on the most vulnerable members of society.

It's a sentiment captured by British comedian Stewart Lee, in his decade-old interview with BBC4 when he says: "I'm of an age where I can see the difference political correctness has made. When I was four years old, my grandfather drove me around Birmingham where the Tories had just fought an election campaign saying 'If you want a n***** for a neighbour, vote Labour', and he drove me around saying, 'This is where all the coons, n*****s and jungle bunnies live.'"

That sort of speech has gone from being acceptable to cringe-inducing in a generation or two. Now, given what they are seeing on social media, some members of today's generation fear we might be back-pedalling – which in turn has led to the current conflict over free speech.

Political battles are messy at the best of times, and there will be mistakes on the way to working out what constitutes equitable free speech in the modern, digital era. Denying Brash his opportunity to speak was probably a mistake. But ripping away platforms from an abusive Holocaust-denier was years overdue.

To borrow again from Lee's BBC appearance, if there is some fallout from this that leaves someone uncertain about whether a joke is racist, homophobic or sexist, that seems a small price to pay for the benefits that political correctness and moderating free speech have had on the lives of millions.