The latest free speech debate – ignited by the National Party opposing Chelsea Manning coming to speak in New Zealand next month – illustrates that many on the political left and right are actually in broad agreement in their desire to severely limit free speech when it suits them.
All they differ on is who should be allowed the right to speak. In the case of the left, they generally want the likes of the recent Canadian alt-right speakers suppressed. The political right wants anti-war dissidents like Chelsea Manning kept out.
To read about National's opposition to the infamous US whistleblower Chelsea Manning being allowed into the country, see the Herald's article, National's Michael Woodhouse calls for whistleblower Chelsea Manning to be banned from New Zealand.
In this, immigration spokesperson Michael Woodhouse explains National's objection: "She was convicted of a crime for which she has absolutely no remorse and not only that, she intends to profit from it by selling tickets to meetings where she talks about exactly what she did. I don't think that's appropriate and I think the associate minister should be declining it."
In response, the Free Speech Coalition has condemned National, with spokesperson Chris Trotter quoted saying, "As a democracy, we have a right to be informed on the activities of our friends on the international stage. New Zealanders deserve a chance to hear her speak." The report says, "He gave examples of other convicted criminals allowed into New Zealand – including Nelson Mandela".
For more on all this, see Henry Cooke's National wants Chelsea Manning barred from New Zealand. Woodhouse is also quoted saying, "I'm a firm believer in free speech. But I don't believe there is a basis to say that her crimes are victimless." Woodhouse also cites New Zealand's relationship with the US, suggesting that this would be negatively affected.
For a very strong enunciation of National's position, see Mike Hosking's column this morning: Chelsea Manning is a crook, keep her out of NZ. For Hosking there's an important principle at stake, which over-rides free speech considerations: "Manning would not be here if it wasn't for her criminality. If it wasn't for the stealing and leaking of classified paperwork that ran the risk of undermining American security, you would never have heard of her. Far less be in a position to consider buying tickets and lining her, and her promoters', pockets."
Hosking explains that there's a tension between political freedoms and law and order: "So on a free speech platform Manning deserves a go, if it were not for the critical fact that she's a criminal – and wants to make money from criminal activity. That is fundamentally, morally, and intellectually wrong. And not just in this specific case, but the precedent it sets. If crooks are free to create income from illegality, where do we draw that line? That's a Pandora's Box we do not want to open."
Not everyone on the political right agrees with this approach, of course (even if they strongly disagree with Manning's actions). For example, rightwing commentator Matthew Hooton (@MatthewHootonNZ) has tweeted: "Chelsea Manning is a thief, a traitor and a disgrace. And she should be welcome to come to New Zealand to speak, including at @AklCouncil premises. And @WoodhouseMP should be sacked as @NZNationalParty immigration spokesperson."
Similarly, Act leader David Seymour has written an opinion piece to say, It doesn't matter what I think of Chelsea Manning. Let her in. In this he argues it's in the public interest that Manning is allowed to come and talk.
Here's Seymour's main point: "The reason I have taken the position that she should be admitted is that ministerial discretion should depend on the public interest. It is in New Zealanders' interest to be able to hear the views of important figures in recent global events and make up our own minds about them. It is not in New Zealand's interests, as National's Michael Woodhouse has suggested, to become a client state of the U.S., making decisions based on what Michael guesses will please them."
Conservative commentator Karl du Fresne is also aghast, blogging today to ask: What on earth was Woodhouse thinking?. He concludes: "Unfortunately the National Party has demonstrated that its support for free speech runs out the moment there's a risk of upsetting an important ally. And this is the party that champions individual freedom? Pfft."
In general, though, it seems the left has come out in support of Manning's visit, and the right against. Therefore, it's the mirror opposite of the ideological positions on the visit of the Canadian alt-right duo. For this reason, blogger Martyn Bradbury has expressed his frustration with both sides: "There isn't just hypocrisy from the Right on this, watching those on the woke left demanding free speech now with Chelsea when barely a month ago they were screaming censorship shows the intellectual bankruptcy that has overcome so many in this debate" – see: If crypto-fascists can be allowed into the country – a human rights legend like Chelsea Manning should be allowed to as well.
Bradbury suggests that in trying to clampdown on reactionary voices, the left have simply set a precedent for the right to do the same about progressive voices: "when we deplatform, we open the door for the right to play the same game."
Danyl Mclauchlan makes a similar point in his excellent column, Chelsea Manning and the limits of free speech absolutism. His conclusion is that in the wake of the latest free speech controversy, it "seems like a good time to point out to all the supporters of deplatforming and restricting public speech that the more power you give the state to determine who can and cannot speak, the more power you give to people like Michael Woodhouse, who was a minister just over a year ago, and may easily be one again."
Mclauchlan's opinion piece also seeks to explain how the National Party could so easily go from championing free speech values in recent months, to suddenly switching sides: "National is also – like most right-wing political parties the world over – a party that somehow believes in limited government and individual rights while simultaneously championing the expansion and empowerment of state security agencies, maximising their ability to spy on their own citizens while minimising any attempts to hold them accountable. Manning's actions and pro-transparency activism are a direct attack on the legitimacy of the modern surveillance state that National were so deeply committed to in government. So Manning is an ideological enemy of the National Party."
I've also written today about the problems of National being so "willing to clamp down on political freedoms based on the politics and ideologies of the individuals involved" – see my Newsroom column, Let Chelsea Manning speak.
And I also suggest that the more censorious left have opened the gates to Manning's possible barring from New Zealand: "In fact, progressives and leftists might be suddenly re-thinking their stance now that one of their own is under threat of being banned from New Zealand. Unfortunately, the New Zealand left has been working hard to convince the public that it is okay to ban people based on their politics and backgrounds. In seeking to curtail some less than savoury individuals, the left have handed over to the right the ideological ammunition to then attempt to do the same to those that the left might favour speaking here."
Therefore, it's not surprising to see that the arguments many on the left are making in favour of Manning being allowed to visit rely on the idea that she is a special case, rather than arguing for political freedoms. For example, Green MP Golriz Ghahraman makes a strong case for the US dissident to be regarded as a hero, but her logic isn't based on principles of political freedoms – see her opinion piece: Criticism over Chelsea Manning's NZ visit is about condemning whistleblowers.
In reply to Ghahraman's arguments, leftwing blogger Steven Cowan accuses her of hypocrisy: "Ghahraman clearly has a very flexible view of what freedom of speech is all about. While she continues to harbour an unhealthy urge to shut out opinions she can't tolerate, she shouldn't be surprised that she should be charged with being a hypocrite when she defends Chelsea Manning's right to speak just because she happens to agree with Manning's political views" – see: Golriz Ghahram: Guilty of hypocrisy.
Similarly, Gordon Campbell puts an excellent case for Manning to be allowed to speak in New Zealand, saying "if we let Manning into the country we might hear some intelligent, informed comment on the difficulties faced by the transgender community, and this would be of positive use to the deliberations of Parliament, as well as to the wider public" – see: National's crusade against Chelsea Manning.
Ultimately, however, Campbell agrees with Woodhouse that we have to take each speaker on their individual merits, and that there's good reason to treat the alt-right Canadians differently to Manning. Where Woodhouse and Campbell disagree is that this difference should favour the free speech rights of Manning rather than Southern and Molyneux: "Yup, there's a difference alright. Southern and Molyneux specialise in speech and actions aimed at inciting fear and hostility against vulnerable minorities. By contrast, Manning leaked 700,000 documents that exposed the means via which the US government secretly practiced violence against vulnerable minorities around the world."
This difference is also emphasised by Greg Presland blogging at The Standard, saying that Manning "is very different to Lauren Southern and Stefan Molyneux. She is not known for attacks on ethnic groups. She does not go around manufacturing dissent for Youtube clicks or engaging in hate speech. She has not taken parts in efforts to sabotage efforts to save refugees from drowning" – see: Let Chelsea Manning speak.
Newstalk ZB's Kate Hawkesby has an excellent response to all of this: "Isn't this just both sides arguing against what doesn't suit their own political leaning? I don't see how you can cherry pick it. Otherwise it's conditional free speech only, based on what we deem fair or not fair, based on our own political viewpoint - which suddenly doesn't sound that free at all. You either have free speech or you don't" – see: On Chelsea Manning NZ's visit: You can't cherry pick free speech.
Finally, in terms of deciding free speech based on the relative merits of various speakers, some on the political left are still arguing that suppressing Southern and Molyneux was justified but banning Don Brash was not. Liam Hehir has responded with a very thoughtful point-by-point rebuttal of such arguments – see: Is Don Brash really different from those Canadians?