It is my honestly held opinion that pineapple on pizza is disgusting.

It's a controversial belief to hold, I know.

As a child, I would pick off each individual malformed triangle, leaving a sad, mushy pile of overcooked fruit in my wake.

It would thus be fair to say that my aversion constitutes a deeply and passionately held view.


I also believe that tinned spaghetti would make a revolting pizza base.

With all due respect, I find the Prime Minister's pizza-making decisions to be both baffling and disturbing - and I'm allowed to say so, because it is my legally protected right to express my opinion.

A group of prominent New Zealanders would agree with me - perhaps not on the issues of pineapple or tinned spaghetti on pizza, but on my right to voice my distaste for them.

Professor Paul Moon would likely be leading the charge, given that he this week assembled a group of 27 New Zealanders, including such unusual bedfellows as Don Brash and Dame Tariana Turia, to sign an open letter defending freedom of expression.

Moon et al. sent a letter to the media to document their concerns about the threat that what they call "emotional blackmail" apparently poses to the freedom of expression at New Zealand universities.

In a separate op-ed published by Fairfax, Moon suggested that, "threats against minority communities in New Zealand, and in other Western countries, and terrorist attacks in Europe are having a chilling effect" on free speech.

You'll have to forgive me for being slightly more concerned about the "chilling effect" such threats are having on minority communities.

The idea that the freedom of expression is under threat at New Zealand universities - or in New Zealand generally - is preposterous.


I can't think of a single example of the Government or the Courts censoring a tertiary institution.

Arguably, in our modern age, thoughts and opinions are being expressed in ways that lawmakers who passed the Bill of Rights Act in 1990 could never have imagined.

Indeed, had they climbed into a time machine and trawled through the bowels of 4chan and Reddit circa 2016, they may well have been persuaded to reconsider the lofty heights of the bar they set.

What the 21 men and six women who signed the open letter appear to have missed is the idea that while freedom of expression is enshrined in our law, it is not, and arguably nor should it be, easy to express offensive views.

Though the law of the land allows people to, "seek, receive, and impart information and opinions of any kind in any form" freely, it also allows the people who disagree with those opinions to speak out just as vociferously against them.

As an opinion columnist and a regular recipient of online vitriol, I'm acutely aware of the stakes attached to the freedom of expression.

To paraphrase the unsolicited "wisdom" that my dependable group of regular haters offers me (in terms that can actually be printed in the newspaper): if you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.

Voicing any kind of opinion carries risks, and it is up to the opinion holder to weigh those risks against their desire to express themself.

You may be free to say what you like, but part of the democratic bargain is that the freedom of expression goes both ways.

A platform is a privilege, not a right.

If a controversial speaker is scheduled to speak at a university event, or if the formation of a group alarms some students, it is the students' right to speak out.

It is also the university's right to listen to the concerns of its students.

Indeed, many of those students likely have a much better idea of the consequences of freedom of speech taken to its extreme in the digital age than the somewhat fusty group of signatories of Moon's missive - many of whom are long past their student days and unlikely to have faced either online abuse or the dangerous rhetoric of groups like the neo-masculinists or the alt-right.

Thankfully, the freedom of expression guaranteed in New Zealand law does not apply to defamation or racially charged hate speech.

Nor does it apply to abuse or harassment.

The Human Rights Act 1993 does, however, have a thing or two to say about "words likely to excite hostility against or bring into contempt any group of persons... on the ground of the colour, race, or ethnic or national origins of that group of persons."

Namely, it says that such words are unlawful.

Why? Because words matter. Words can combine, twist, percolate, compound and eventually incite violence or discrimination.

Venerated minds may have argued that an informed citizenry should simply see through discriminative or logically bereft opinions, but the argument starts to fall apart when we're presented with persuasive and malignant actors who use ugly rhetoric to whip fearful people into a frenzy for their own means.

I can't possibly think of a recent example of that...

When discussions turn to the freedom of speech, it is important to consider those most at risk.

It is also crucial to deconstruct the idea of the "informed" population.

While some university professors may find themselves ensconced inside the comfortable bubble of academia, surrounded by other highly educated teaching staff, some members of minority groups may not be so lucky.

We only have to look to examples such as the murder of British MP Jo Cox, the recent brutal gang beating of a young asylum seeker in Croydon or the threats our Race Relations Commissioner Dame Susan Devoy regularly receives to understand the influence words can have.

We may have the ability to say what we please, but with that right comes great responsibility.