Protecting Freedom/Preventing Harm. Can New Zealand’s New Chief Censor Do Both?

 

IT IS TO BE HOPED that the new Chief Censor, Caroline Flora, will waste no time explaining herself. It is important that New Zealanders are told how her old job, Associate Deputy-Director Strategy and Performance, at the Ministry of Health, made her the obvious choice for her new job.

According to Peter Dunne, the Minister of Internal Affairs responsible for the appointment of Ms Flora’s predecessor, David Shanks: “The Chief Censor is responsible for protecting New Zealanders from material likely to cause harm while balancing the important right to freedom of expression”.

Clearly, the person tasked with this delicate legal and cultural juggling act should be someone with a solid background in law, and more than a passing acquaintance with philosophy, political history, the arts and literature, film, television, and social-media. Are these the core capacities required of the Associate Deputy-Director Strategy and Performance at the Ministry of Health? They may well be, but the prima facie case is not strong.

Which is why Ms Flora owes New Zealand a comprehensive explanation of how she sees, and how she proposes to carry out, her role. Where, for example, is her duty to respect and protect the citizen’s right to freedom of expression positioned in relation to her understanding of what is likely to cause society as a whole, or a vulnerable sub-section of it, “harm”. How does she define harm? A question which, depending on how Ms Flora answers it, will play a central role in how she carries out her new responsibilities.

It is vitally important to remember that freedom of expression relates not only to the citizen’s right to communicate his or her thoughts and emotions to others, but also to their right to have their thoughts and emotions excited and stimulated by the communications of others. Our own Bill of Rights Act spells it out: “Everyone has the right to freedom of expression, including the freedom to seek, receive, and impart information and opinions of any kind in any form.” In other words, the right to emulate Shakespeare, as well as the right to read and watch Shakespeare’s plays.

What threshold will a book, play, film or video have to cross before Ms Flora bans it? Would she consider banning the performance of Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice on the grounds that it is antisemitic? Would she ban a film which presented a young person’s decision to transition from female to male in a negative light? Would she pull from the bookshelves a work of history that purported to prove that the chiefs who gathered at Waitangi in 1840 knowingly surrendered their sovereignty to the British Crown? Would she prohibit the distribution of a video depicting Islam as a religion of violence?

One would hope that the new Chief Censor’s answer to each of these questions would be an emphatic “No.” But, considering the censorious times we are living through, it is, sadly, necessary to ask. From the Caucus Room to the Common Room, the urge to shut-down and shut-up those accused of inflicting “harm” on others is strong – and getting stronger.

In the United Nation’s summary of the “International Bill of Human Rights” the notion of harm is spelled out in relation to communications inimical to the free exercise, individually and/or collectively, of those rights and freedoms the International Bill of Human Rights was created to protect. The latter provides for protection of the rights to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, and to freedom of opinion and expression. Significantly, it also calls for the “prohibition by law of any propaganda for war and of any advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence.”

If this is Ms Flora’s definition of hateful “speech”, then she will find most New Zealanders in agreement with her. Incitement of ‘discrimination’, ‘hostility’ and ‘violence’ would strike most of us as a sensible test for determining whether material not already defined as “objectionable” in the legislation establishing the Chief Censor’s office should be deemed so.

Were Ms Flora, in explaining herself to her fellow citizens, to refer approvingly to the legacy of her erudite and classically liberal predecessors, Arthur Everard and Bill Hastings, many of them would breath a large sigh of relief. They could then feel reassured that the Chief Censor’s power to rule a particular instance of communication objectionable (invoking all the powerful legal sanctions associated with that term) would be used both wisely and sparingly.

The worry, of course, is that Ms Flora will use the powers of her office to extend its reach into the communication of ideas and policies that, while falling well short of inciting discrimination, hostility or violence, nevertheless are likely to upset and alarm specific individuals or communities.

The new Chief Censor’s background in the upper reaches of the public service raise fears that her institutionally-honed inclination will be to move in the direction of the incumbent government. Given this Government’s growing obsession with misinformation, disinformation and extremism, driven by the Christchurch Mosque Massacres and the Covid-19 Pandemic, it would be helpful to know whether Ms Flora plans to go with the flow, or stand against the tide. Will she be guided by the fundamental tenets of classical liberalism? Or, will she be moved by the definitions of extremism supplied last year to the Department of Internal Affairs by the UK-based Institute for Strategic Dialogue? If it’s the latter, then freedom of expression in New Zealand could take a hit.

This is why the new Chief Censor owes New Zealand a clear explanation of where she stands, and where she would like to go. Ms Flora is taking up office in a climate of deepening antagonisms between ethnicities, identities and faith communities. If the Labour Government’s announced intention to criminalise “hate speech” is expedited by the new Minister of Justice, Kiri Allan, then the Office of the Chief Censor, along with the Human Rights Commission, will find themselves caught between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea. The dual mandate set out by Peter Dunne: to protect New Zealanders from “material likely to cause harm while balancing the important right to freedom of expression” can only become harder and harder to fulfil.

 

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