As the Government looks to tighten hate speech laws and students call for universities to silence racists, Prof Jim Flynn tells Bruce Munro why intent is more important than offence and warns against becoming a society of "might makes right".

It is in the dying moments of the interview that light dawns.

Just after 11am, standing in the shoebox office of Emeritus Professor Jim Flynn while packing away sound and video recording equipment at the tail end of a conversation about freedom of speech, an interview arranged in light of his book on the same topic that ironically has been silenced by a fearful publisher, and reflecting on how often the issue of free speech is making its presence felt - Jacinda Ardern's Christchurch Call, white supremacist posters at Auckland University, Donald Trump's United Nations speech, court rulings on venue cancellations for controversial Canadian speakers ... - an obvious, but so far unuttered, question comes to mind.

Why are freedom of speech issues so prevalent right now?

Prof Flynn's answer makes sense of it all, reports Otago Daily Times.

Advertisement

An hour previous, the 85-year academic, a political philosopher and international expert on IQ who still goes for regular runs and has at least another two books in the works, responds to a first question, about his unpublished book In Defense of Free Speech: The University as Censor, by explaining his reaction to being told by United Kingdom publisher Emerald Press that it would not be printing the book for fear it could be seen to incite hatred.

"It was all ready to go. The readers' reports were in and they loved those ... The only thing that was left was to read it for typos," Prof Flynn says of the book in which he critically examines the way universities, supposedly the bastions of free speech, are becoming increasingly censored.

Emeritus Professor Jim Flynn says a clampdown on free speech turns a contest of ideas into a contest of strength. Photo / File
Emeritus Professor Jim Flynn says a clampdown on free speech turns a contest of ideas into a contest of strength. Photo / File

"It's deeply disappointing," he says.

"Rarely has a book been so quickly justified by events. The book is about the decline of free speech ... and apparently, even to defend free speech you may be beyond permissible limits."

That is what the publisher's lawyers were worried about: not that Prof Flynn was saying anything to incite hatred, but that he was talking in his book about the ideas of others whose views could, conceivably, incite hatred.

It is a momentous issue, he says.

"If you cannot even state an opponent's position in order to illustrate the benefit of arguing with that opponent, then free speech is over. Because no dialogue then is possible."

Free speech is so important that we are having arguments about it all the time, often unwittingly.

Advertisement

Prof Flynn's unpublished book is an explicit manifestation of what has become perhaps the over-arching topic of our time - what can and cannot be said in public? And, how do we decide where to draw the line?

One argument could go all the way to the Supreme Court.

This week, the Free Speech Coalition decried a High Court judgement backing the decision to cancel Auckland venue bookings for two Canadian far-right advocates last year.

In July, last year, bookings for Lauren Southern and Stefan Molyneux to speak at the Bruce Mason Centre were cancelled by Regional Facilities Auckland (RFA), which cited "security concerns".

This was supported by Auckland Mayor Phil Goff who said Auckland council's RFA shouldn't have to "provide a venue for hate speech".

The Free Speech Coalition responded with a judicial review application, lodged in the name of two people, one of whom was Dunedin mayoral candidate Malcolm Moncrief-Spittle.

The coalition called the Court's decision a "missed opportunity ... to deal with the substantive issue: whether the `thugs veto' will be tolerated as a legitimate means of censoring speech" and said it planned to appeal.

Also this month, students and staff have been taking umbrage at the University of Auckland's response to a white supremacist group putting up posters on campus.

The university's vice-chancellor, Prof Stuart McCutcheon, said the posters were "unfortunate" and most people would consider the group's views "abhorrent", but that the university "has a responsibility to uphold the principles of freedom of speech".

Two men debate the merits of Brexit in London. Photo / Getty Images
Two men debate the merits of Brexit in London. Photo / Getty Images

Several students staged a protest, calling on the university to take a different approach. One of the students was reported saying, "Why not shut it down when he's aware of their intentions and of their beliefs and what they value ... it's creating an unsafe environment at uni".

Prof Flynn, however, has no hesitation saying the vice-chancellor is right.

But first he defines free speech and its significance.
"Freedom of speech is important because it is a contest of ideas," he explains.

"When you forbid certain ideas, the only way you can be effective is by being more powerful. So it becomes a contest of strength.

"If you shut 'em up, not only does that make it a matter of `might makes right', you haven't proved that your views are more defensible, you've just proved that you are stronger.

"Further, that must be the worst formula for finding truth that's ever been invented.

"It's either a contest of ideas or a contest of strength."

Prof Flynn gives the example of what happened to Dr Charles Murray, an academic he has locked horns with in the debate over the link between IQ and race.

Dr Murray was hounded off the campus at Middlebury College, in Vermont, US, where he was booked to speak about his research and his views.

"A mob chased him out. These people, I'm sure most hadn't read Murray.

"What is university all about but learning to defend your opinions? You can hardly defend your opinions if you won't look at their most serious critics. So, the mob was an ignorant mob."

This sort of thing is happening more frequently at universities, he says.

Quoting from his research of US campuses, Prof Flynn says there are many departments that have no dissenting voices on their reading lists.

"Only if you examine [issues] scientifically can you find a solution. Just whipping up your students' moral indignation ... doesn't take you very far.

"So, I agree with the vice-chancellor," Prof Flynn says, returning to the Auckland case.

"No-one has to read those posters. Just ignore them. I would suspect that 99% of the students at Auckland do not share the sentiment of those posters.

"If you really think it's an issue, hire a hall and educate people about what they say ... Don't we have ample evidence that those posters are mistaken?"

The clash of views on free speech is also being played out on the world stage, with New Zealand in the spotlight.

Prime Minister Jacinda Adern addresses the United Nations. Photo / Nick Reed
Prime Minister Jacinda Adern addresses the United Nations. Photo / Nick Reed

Late last month, US president Donald Trump addressed the United Nations.

In a speech that championed nationalism over globalism, Trump also grabbed the mantle of defender of free speech.

"In the United States, my administration has made clear to social media companies that we will uphold the right of free speech," Trump said.

"A free society cannot allow social media giants to silence the voices of the people. And a free people must never, ever be enlisted in the cause of silencing, coercing, cancelling or blacklisting their own neighbours."

Although he did not mention New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern by name, it was a thinly veiled response to the Christchurch Call. The call is an Ardern-led international initiative - in the wake of the March 15, live-streamed, Christchurch mosque shootings, in which 51 people died - calling on governments and tech companies to eliminate terrorist and violent extremist content online.

Two days after Trump's speech, Ardern took the podium at the UN.

Also careful not to mention the US president, it was clear her words were a response.

"In an increasingly online world we need to create spaces for the exchange of ideas, sharing of technology and free speech, while also acknowledging the potential for this technology to be used for harm," Ardern said.

"Feeling safe means the absence of fear; living free from racism, bullying and discrimination ... And so now it is our turn to stop and listen, to accept that our words and actions have immeasurable consequences, and to speak not only like the whole world is listening but with the responsibility of someone who knows a small child somewhere might be listening too."

In addition to conversations with world leaders and the heads of the likes of Facebook and Google, Ardern supports a review of New Zealand's hate speech laws. This country already has laws to protect against hate speech in the Human Rights Act (HRA) and the Harmful Digital Communications Act. The review, driven by Minister of Justice Andrew Little, is examining whether the laws need to be tightened.

"For example, the law in the HRA makes it a criminal offence to incite disharmony on grounds of race, nationality or ethnicity. But inciting disharmony on grounds of religion or sexuality are not covered," Little says.

He acknowledges that deciding where to draw the line between free speech and hate speech is "an incredibly difficult question".

"Freedoms are not absolute, because one person exercising a freedom can reduce another person's freedom, and so we recognise the idea of justified limitations."

Who, then, gets to decide where to draw the line? And, more importantly, on what basis?

Ardern's speech to the UN and the University of Auckland protestors' comments suggest the hearers' offence or their feeling unsafe should decide the matter.

Prof Flynn says that would be foolishly wrong.

He disagrees with Trump's freedom-at-all-costs attitude.

Schools should have codes of conduct targeting online bullying, he says, because children are "not full citizens" and online bullying "is not discussing ideas".

He is also in favour of hate speech laws.

"The internet has an international audience, some of whom are screwy, who are demented and fanatics.

"I think we do have to say, content on the net should be banned if it incites people to use violence or even uncivil behaviour against individuals or groups with clear intent."

That sentence is Prof Flynn's line in the sand.

A protestor in Portugal holds a sign opposing far right groups. Photo / Getty Images
A protestor in Portugal holds a sign opposing far right groups. Photo / Getty Images

He believes "incites" and "clear intent" should be key words setting the threshold for hate speech.

"If you don't put `clear intent', anything you put on the internet some nut may use to stir people up but that wasn't your intent.

"If you banish everything that might cause a nut to become radically active you've ended free speech.

"So we have to protect free speech, while also banishing from the net people who say kill every Jew in New York. You should stop short of banishing free discussion of ideas that do not say kill someone or treat someone badly."

His definition does not make much room for feelings of offence or feelings of safety.

"People have to grow up. Being educated is getting used to hearing ideas that upset you."

He gives an example from his own heritage.

"When I was growing up, Irish Americans were still suspect. They said things like, `The Irish tended to be violent and lawless'.

"That actually was quite true. Because the Irish had been outlaws in England. They had very little respect for the law. They saw the law put them one down.

"You had to understand the Irish situation to cure it."

It was important to let people discuss the issue freely, no matter how offensive the Irish found it.

"Only when you allowed these things to be investigated did you find solutions."

On the matter of feeling safe, he draws on his own experience again.

"I presume there are certain nuts who might think I am worthy of being exterminated. If any plot is uncovered, they should safeguard my safety.

"But if the people confine themselves to writing bitter comment about my books, I think they are wrong and it might offend me, it might even make me feel unsafe, but the State shouldn't safeguard its citizens merely because they take offence at the tenor of the debate."

What is urgently needed, Prof Flynn says, is training in critical thinking.

University students are not being properly educated unless they are being exposed to both sides of issues and taught how to think about issues for themselves, he says.

"If they really want to turn out critical thinkers, they have to read widely in terms of literature and history and philosophy."

The more people are informed, the more you have an elite of journalists and civil servants and educated people who create a discourse that sets limits on government, he says.

"The only hope in the long run is that, thanks to free debate and better education, we have a larger and larger group of citizens who can be aware enough of the world and aware enough of what is going on that they can ... set limits on what their leaders would like to do."

The value of a citizenry schooled in critical thinking is clear. Quite how that is the solution to the free speech/hate speech clash is less so.

But time is up, the interview is over.

Packing up, subconscious reflections on what has been said coalesce. One final question bubbles up.

Why are freedom of speech issues so prevalent right now?

People are getting more interested in ideas and are feeling more strongly about their principles, Prof Flynn says.

"And of course, the stronger you feel about your principles, the more likely you are to shut anyone up who disagrees."

In a way, unwarranted attempts at censorship are the dark side of a positive change.

But good principles aren't enough. You also have to be free of ignorance, he says.

"And people are reading less and less. So, we have a generation that is more morally sensitive than its predecessors and yet is more ignorant.

"It opens the door to people who feel so strongly about something that they don't want to hear what the other side has to say.

"They are not aware of the history of free speech and why it is valuable. They are not aware that you only progress towards truth through open debate.

"They just know they hate what they hear. That, for them, is the end of it."