How 'free' is New Zealand?

New Zealand is a free country. All are free to express their views.

There we have two plain statements which, superficially, seem to state the obvious. But is it? And are they?

In a perfect world, it could be good if both were the case. But in reality it is not straightforward.

The recent kerfuffle over the cover of the Otago University Students' Association's magazine Critic has again brought into the spotlight the vexed issues of freedom of speech and censorship. Such debates over where the limits of free speech are, and whether any kinds of censorship are actually justified, happen fairly regularly.

Critic's menstruation issue, as it is was touted, may not have crossed the line but it certainly flirted dangerously with it. That was probably the point. Put simply, a provocative cover illustration did its job - it offended and provoked someone, but unfortunately to the extent they took action which was ill-advised and ill-thought out.

Critic received a lot of publicity, the university bore the brunt of bad publicity. Victory for Critic.

It is always handy for the censored on campus to have the time-honoured ``university as a bastion of free speech'' argument at its beck and call. Certainly, it is true that a university should be a crucible of new and edgy ideas, ones that challenge the mainstream; as a result, some thoughts and words will inevitably upset certain groups in society. But there are still certain legal limits to what can be said.

So why can we not just say and do whatever we like with impunity, even in a ``free'' country? For a start there are laws protecting individuals and organisations against defamation. Secondly, it is illegal to act in a way, or write anything, which incites racial hatred, while other discrimination based on a person's ethnicity, religion, gender or sexual orientation is unlawful too. It is also against the law to encourage violence or law-breaking activities.

Such safeguards are necessary in a democracy to ensure citizens can live without fear of prejudice and bigotry. Most realise this is desirable, and it is still possible to robustly express one's opinions while exercising a degree of self-censorship.

While Critic went too far in the eyes of some in the university's Campus Watch office, resulting in the unwarranted destruction of copies, and while the menstruation subject of that issue was no doubt challenging, it should not have been censored. The ODT is wholeheartedly against censorship - and this specific action - although it also realises there are many old journalistic tricks. In this case, while Critic staff may have been appalled at the outcome, they cannot pretend they were trying to do anything other than goad parts of the community.

It has to be said there is also an element of trendiness when it comes to reacting to censorship. These days it is easy to get hot under the collar when a left-wing or liberal view is withheld or censored. But that does not seem to hold true for censoring right-wing or conservative opinions.

Even coming up with an example carries a risk of adverse reaction. But, imagine someone had gone to Critic wanting the editor to run stories supporting Israel Folau's objectionable opinions on homosexuality. Would they have been used? By not doing so, isn't that also censorship?

There is a sense that some opinions are more equal than others. That should not be the case, as long as they pass those tests of defamation, human rights and being lawful.

As a society we must not get prissy about challenging shibboleths. People hold views that others don't like and that will offend others. Unless those views fall foul of the law, the right to express them has to be protected.

Otherwise we are in jeopardy of living in an increasingly anodyne world, one in which any differences are suppressed rather than celebrated.



Freedom as relates to our democracy also raises concerns. Our electoral system gives rise to a coalition agreement that wasn't on the table when we submitted our votes. As reported today the Oil and Gas decision was a presidential decree and not consulted at cabinet with economic analysis. We should be concerned by this.

Philright illustrates the difficulties of freely expressed Opinion. It is Tribalist, and in his case Trojan Horsed to an op ed about, well, Free Speech. It would be relevant if the Coalition Govt were suppressing free speech, but it isn't. It's instructive to recall that the most interesting and non anodyne current affairs show, 'Campbell Live', was axed under the previous Government, which also ordered police investigation of Newsrooms, post 'teapot scandal'.

Unregulated opinion is now delivered with partisan emotion and personal abuse.

We have an example of Government by decree coupled with possible future Waka Jumping legislation. That is an uneasy mix and we should be concerned by the shift in direction. Certainly not tribalist to raise concerns.

Truth is what brings freedom. It is straightforward and backed by evidence. The thing that causes bondages and oppressions is lies and deceits. A law that is based upon lying to and deceiving citizens should be resisted.