Places to speak freely vital for healthy society

Invercargill, bereft of an agora or speakers’ corner. PHOTO: ODT FILES
Invercargill, bereft of an agora or speakers’ corner. PHOTO: ODT FILES
Where are the forums for free speech in our cities Anna Palliser writes.

I believe there is a quiet erosion of human rights and democracy in Aotearoa.

The New Zealand Bill of Rights 1990, section 14, says "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".

Most definitions of democracy include the respect for human rights and freedom of expression. I think most people in this country would agree we have the right to freedom of expression, but do we really?

Where exactly are we allowed to exercise the right of freedom of expression? I am allowed to express myself on Facebook, true, but what about in my city? On the streets? In the place where I work?

Where are the public spaces where I can freely post information about something I believe in or art that represents my opinion?

Increasingly the public spaces are privatised, owned by companies that have the right to veto expression of any opinions they don’t like or consider controversial. Even public libraries have to check with the council before they post any information on their public notice boards that may be considered religious or political.

Our academic institutions, which have long been considered spaces where diverse options should be expressed and debated are increasingly clamping down on these freedoms, forbidding posters which express political or religious opinion, forbidding protests doing the same.

In my city of Invercargill, my rates have helped pay for a new CBD development, yet security guards stop people from peacefully gathering signatures for a petition.

During the building development boards have been put up round certain areas and some community art work has been painted on them.

But nothing is allowed that may be seen as political or religious.

My city’s Facebook community notice board also vetos any information that the admin consider political. Yet so many things that people feel strongly about can be classed as political or religious, gender diversity, racial inequity, gender inequalities, Buddhism ideals, prejudice against Islam, the causes of poverty — the list is long.

This is important because forbidding the freedom of expression enshrined in our Bill of Rights pushes people who are passionate about an issue and wish to inform the public into actions that can be classed as illegal, for example sticking up posters, creating art forms and gathering signatures in places where they would not be allowed to if they asked permission.

In other words, if there are no public spaces where this freedom of expression is allowed then people who express themselves anyway can be classed as criminals.

In ancient Greece all cities had an agora, a public space where diverse opinions could be debated.

Without this space, a lot of the philosophical ideas we still refer to probably would never have been developed.

In London there is a Speakers’ Corner where anyone can present and debate their opinion about something.

Where are our agoras and speakers’ corners? Without them, diverse opinions get pushed into self-referential silos on Facebook, so people never have to deal with the checks and balances that emerge from healthy debate with diverse perspectives and they become entrenched in narrow viewpoints.

Or people gather in groups feeling disconnected from society and government, getting angry.

In my opinion every town and city in Aotearoa needs public spaces where art, posters and debate about any subject can happen.

Without this, silos of discontent and disconnect are inevitable.

Healthy societies become eroded and fragmented, ill-informed and angry.

Not a good pathway to be on.

 - Anna Palliser is an Invercargill ratepayer.