COMMENT:

Don Brash. The man has had more reinventions than Madonna. Just when you think he must be about to step over the precipice into the abyss of irrelevance, he surprises you and lands in the news headlines again.

He's like New Zealand's favourite ranty old uncle, complete with views of a certain vintage and, seemingly, a desperate need to share them with anyone who will listen.

And so, like polite nieces and nephews trapped at the dinner table, we end up listening. Again and again. Funnily enough, I feel the same way about Don Brash as Don Brash feels about te reo Māori. I could do with hearing far less Don Brash in my life, but sadly I just can't seem to escape him.

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I'm sure this all sounds very mean-spirited, and I don't intend for it to be. I've met Don Brash, and I have actually enjoyed time in his company. He is personable and courteous. He also holds and voices opinions I wholeheartedly believe are harmful to my people and my culture, and that I find nauseating. They're the kind of views that, in my opinion, distort history and stoke separatism. And he insists on repeating them, over and over.

So forgive me for not feeling any great depth of feeling about Don Brash being denied one of the many platforms that he regularly enjoys. The decision to ban him from speaking at Massey University was undoubtedly an ill-considered own-goal, but it hardly amounts to an attack on the foundations of our democracy. Free speech isn't exactly under threat when the response to the news of Massey rescinding his invitation is for the national media to fall over themselves giving Don Brash the right to speak to far more than the 20 or so students he likely otherwise would've spoken to. Censorship crisis averted.

I've heard a lot lately about the freedom of speech being in grave danger in this country. Much of it has made me fear for my eyeballs, which have been spinning so forcefully that they've threatened to roll right out of their sockets.

For example, one of those Canadians raged about the "encroaching mob and horde of mindless violence the left seems to want to unleash on the failing remnants of civilisation" in a video he posted asking viewers for money after his New Zealand show was cancelled.

I won't give oxygen here to the other dramatic overstatements that our Canadian visitors brought with them to Godzone, but it is disappointing to see that similarly overblown comments have been adopted by our own self-proclaimed free speech crusaders. Don Brash's rebuttal to his opponents this week suggested that the "thugs" had been "emboldened".

The man who sent the letter to the Vice Chancellor that sparked this entire sorry saga allegedly wrote, "remember in light of their type of 'Free Speech' does not come Free of Consequences". How very thuggish. Terrifying.

It's more likely that Don Brash's so-called "thugs" would've amounted to a few vocal students with placards. They might even have outnumbered the attendees of the event. Either way, the last time I checked, the right to protest was protected under the umbrella of free speech.

What has become overwhelmingly clear in the midst of the tide of hysteria and hyperbole is that there are many people who don't really grasp the true meaning of free speech. Having the freedom of speech just means (with a few exceptions, such as in matters of national security and hate speech) that the state doesn't have the right to prevent citizens from expressing themselves or punishing them if they do. It can't throw people in jail for speaking out against the Government, or to prevent them from speaking out.

Free speech doesn't mean everyone has the right to speak in whatever venue they please. It doesn't mean that people who disagree with a speaker can't argue or protest. It doesn't mean that people can say vile, violent and inflammatory things without fear of prosecution. As the person who wrote to Massey's Vice Chancellor alluded to, just because we have the right to free speech, it doesn't mean we won't face consequences for what we say.

Indeed, speaking of consequences, one of the greatest ironies of this whole ridiculous palaver is the news that Brash is looking into suing Massey's Vice Chancellor for defamation. Brash, that noble knight fighting for the freedom of expression, knows full well that there are limits to free speech. Ones that he quite approves of and may be willing to exploit in court.

Which tells you rather a lot about the realities of the free speech argument. Sir Bob Jones springs to mind - he who exercised his right to free speech to write an (in my opinion) abhorrent column in the NBR then sued Renae Maihi for expressing her views about his column. Jones is absolutely entitled to his opinions, repugnant or otherwise, but I'm starting to wonder whether your speech is inherently freer the more money you have.

I'm also starting to wonder whether free speech functions as a smokescreen that simultaneously protects purveyors of the most hideous sentiments and doggedly maintains the status quo. Everyone has the right to free speech, but whose voices are actually heard?

As a Māori woman, who is often the only Māori and/or the only woman in speaker line-ups, on panels and on media shows, I'm far more concerned about the women and people of colour who are effectively censored by exclusion or tokenism than I am about Don Brash not speaking to a handful of students.

While Brash could quickly reinstate his freedom of expression by squawking to the media, others aren't so fortunate. In practice, free speech for people of my culture and gender is more of a luxury than a right.

Which begs the question… I wonder whether Don would support my right to free speech if I'd written this column in te reo Māori?