Wild horses could not drag me to hear Chelsea Manning speak in Auckland tonight but I am glad she is allowed to speak here. When genuine whistleblowers betray a trust they do it to reveal something specific and significant. Her big leak struck me as rather sick.

Not content with releasing military film from Iraq and Afghanistan that confirmed war is nasty, she dumped probably her entire log of US Army intelligence in the lap of Julian Assange.

It might have been "the world's biggest ever security leak" by volume, but the cables newspapers published, presumably the most significant, were unremarkable diplomatic observations of political leaders in undiplomatic language. To call that whistle-blowing devalues the term.


We in the press get very excited about anything we were not supposed to have, which we call a "leak", and doubly excited when we can put the word "intelligence" beside it. The word conjured images of spies, shady characters lurking in dangerous places, risking their lives for the precious information we can now reveal.

Chelsea, formerly Bradley, Manning illustrates how wrong this image of intelligence gathering, and gatherers, really is. Anyone less like a Le Carre character would be hard imagine. Even dressed as a soldier she looked like the geek she is. She would not be at all out of place in the offices of the New Zealand SIS or GCSB today.

In fact dressed as a woman in casual clothing she would fit in perfectly. And her computer skills — apparently she built her own website at age 10 — are exactly what security services need most in this age of digital warfare and cyber spying.

Tonight she might not talk much about intelligence because it is mostly desk work, not dramatic. Her promoters promise she will also discuss her time in prison, transgender issues, privacy and Wikileaks. None of those interest me much. I am more interested in what her presence here says about freedom of speech in this country.

It took quite a battering when Phil Goff closed Auckland Council venues to two visitors whose views he hated. The ensuing debate was very good, very important, and I think — though I'm not certain — that it ended in a victory for free speech.

National's immigration spokesman wants to bar Manning, but then National had equivocated on Goff's ban too.

When he was taken to court, Goff didn't even attempt to defend his statements that, "council venues shouldn't be used to stir up ethnic or religious tensions" or for "views that divide rather than unite". He filed a defence that claimed the decision had been taken purely on grounds of public safety because the event would have attracted a protest.

That excuse was echoed by the vice-chancellor of Massey University when she banned Don Brash from a debate on the campus, and, most surprisingly, by the normally strong Vice-Chancellor of Auckland University, Stuart McCutcheon, who wrote in the Herald that Brash could speak on his campus, "not because our commitment to free speech was any greater than Massey's, but because we were lucky enough not to have to deal with the same threats".


It is hard to know how seriously to treat this. If it really means council venues and universities are closed to views that would attract protests, even violent protest, free speech is severely restricted. But if the possibility of protests was enough to stop an event, Chelsea Manning would not be speaking in Auckland tonight, at a council-supported venue.

Judging by letters to the Herald this week, some people are very strongly opposed to her presence. It's quite possible there will be anger expressed outside her venue though it is unlikely to involve shouting down opposing views and disrupting the meeting. Those are forms of "free speech" typical of left-wing protest not the right.

But whether there is trouble tonight or not, the mere possibility has not stopped the event going ahead, as it did for Lauren Southern and Stefan Molyneaux, even in a privately owned venue eventually. That surprised me less than Goff's ban. Private enterprise avoids controversy, public bodies normally recognise a responsibility to accommodate it.

As should universities. The most troubling passage in McCutcheon's article was this: "From the perspective of university leaders, it is almost impossible to reconcile the rights of those who demand 'free speech' (particularly at the more extreme end of any issue) with the rights of those who demand to be protected from what they see as prejudice and a cause of mental distress."

Really? Impossible to reconcile those rights? I dare to think this debate has prompted academics to ask whether universities have surrendered too much to "those who demand to be protected" from arguments that challenge their intellectual comfort zone. At least I hope so.