Some of the things I believe about free speech: It's meaningless if it applies only to ideas you agree with. Also, it's not absolute: it doesn't eclipse other rights, like freedom from harm. Also, it's the people you don't admire whose freedoms often need defending the most. Free speech is complicated.

The current free-speech debate arose when Auckland mayor Phil Goff declared: "Views that divide rather than unite are repugnant, and I have made my views on this very clear. Lauren Southern and Stefan Molyneux will not be speaking at any Council venues."

Southern and Molyneux are Canadian white supremacists who were booked to speak next month at the council's Bruce Mason Centre in Takapuna. Southern has been denied entry to Britain and the same should be done here, says Hazim Arafeh, president of the NZ Federation of Islam Associations.


Australia banned them too, which caused their visit here to be cancelled. That ban was lifted on Monday, but no word yet if the tour is back on. Meanwhile, an outfit called the Free Speech Coalition, formed for the purpose, has raised $50,000 to challenge the council's decision in court. The coalition includes former leader of the National and Act parties, Don Brash, and also noted left-wing commentator Chris Trotter.

Free speech is not absolute. If you burn crosses on my lawn and incite my neighbours to kill me, I will expect the police to arrest you and the courts to convict you. You should get the same protection, even if your heart is filled with hatred, if someone else makes the same threats against you.

It's the same if you incite violence against whole groups of people. When hatred is unleashed, the most dangerous people are not the thugs, but those who empower the thugs.

Free speech is not absolute. The argument is about where to draw the line.

But is incitement to violence the right place to do that? What about people who don't go so far but still stir up hatred? All it takes is to turn the world into "us" and "them", and to demonise or dehumanise "them".

What about people who don't actively hate but who marginalise and mock the vulnerable because "it's just a bit of fun"? That's damaging and offensive.

But offence is not the benchmark. Free speech is not free at all if we reserve it only for ideas and people we agree with.

Lauren Southern. Photo / Supplied
Lauren Southern. Photo / Supplied

There is an essential corollary to this: free speech will make us uncomfortable. Free speech will offend: everybody, some of the time; some people all of the time.


On the other hand, Goff was on strong ground when he tweeted that council venues "shouldn't be used to stir up ethnic or religious tensions in a city that's multicultural, inclusive and embraces people from all faiths and ethnicities".

The mayor wants to build civil society and the use of council venues plays both a symbolic and practical part in that. He wants to signal to vulnerable communities that the city cares about them, that their rights to safety and dignity are taken seriously.

This is an important issue for Auckland, where many of us are reluctant to take racism seriously. Former Race Relations Commissioner Dame Susan Devoy revealed she received daily complaints about it, especially where Muslim women were the target. "No one comes to their defence," she said.

Think about it in terms of dairy owners, who are overwhelmingly Indian New Zealanders and are a prime target for violence. We don't actually set thugs on to them – but we don't do much to stop it. Why not? If Ponsonby Rd boutique owners were attacked in their shops as often as dairy owners are, imagine the outcry.

Use a public platform to ridicule a woman in a hijab and you invite others to join in, putting her and everyone perceived to be like her at risk of harm. Ridicule Brian Tamaki, however, and there will be no damaging consequences at all. He's a powerful pompous ass, I believe, and he deserves it.

How do you write a law that provides for both? In 1936, Britain introduced the Public Order Act to control the British Union of Fascists, but it was used against the miners' strike in 1984-85.

Event promoter David Pellowe says the council decision means free speech has been "taken away forever". What nonsense. We exchange views vigorously all the time in this country, in politics, cultural expression and social life. People get offended and on the whole we believe that's just fine.

I don't think Bob Jones should be stripped of his knighthood, although I do think he has always been an unfit person to get one. I don't think Israel Folau should be banned from playing rugby, although I am pleased his bigotry has been so robustly challenged. It is undoubtedly damaging to young gay men.

Folau is motivated by faith, not hatred. But Southern and Molyneux are haters. Their purpose is to stir up outrage and if that leads to violence, so be it. They're proud of it.

Southern says things like "Allah is a Gay God" and "Allah is trans". This is not a religious belief, held in good or even bad faith. She says it to inflame religious hatred: immigration is her enemy and Islam her central target.

As for Molyneux, his special phobia is women. "The evil that women are capable of," he has said, "and the evil that women do — not all women — but the evil that women do is generally invisible to society which is why there's so much violence in society."

What were they going to do here? "I can't get into too much detail," Southern posted. "But I can tell you I hope to cause chaos. In a good way."

In a good way? This is the woman who called Hitler "just an SJW [social justice warrior] who happened to get a freaky amount of power". Who joined a boat in the Mediterranean trying to prevent rescue craft picking up refugees. Just to be clear about that, she has actively tried to stop rescuers save people from drowning.

She believes Muslims are "barbarians" who will destroy Western civilisation. Which is ironic, I suppose, because I believe Donald Trump is a barbarian and if anyone is going to destroy Western civilisation it's probably him. And yes, I want to preserve my right to say so.

Southern and Molyneux are motivated by more than white supremacism and its associated hatreds. It's not hard, looking at photos of the 23-year-old Southern posing with semi-automatic weapons and an American flag bandana, to see she's infatuated with her own fame. He's the same, posting a stream of long uncut videos of himself. Dangerous? Yes, but also ridiculous.

It's not clear to me they pose such a threat they should be banned from entering New Zealand at this time. But I am pleased they can't use council venues and I couldn't help noticing no other group offered to host them. If they do come, maybe they present an opportunity: we can whack these horrible people with some free speech of our own.