Firstly, I want to make it clear that I believe the killings of Chalie Hebdo staff in Paris was wrong, and the gunmen are murderers. My post here is not intended to cast any doubt on that. What I do want to comment on is how the idea of “freedom of speech” can be selectively applied.

Derek Fox has been a New Zealand broadcaster, commentator, publisher, journalist, Māori Party candidate and a Mayor.  He is known for his outspoken and often controversial views, so it was in character for him to make the following comments about the event:

The editor of the French magazine has paid the price for his assumption of cultural superiority and arrogance, he was the bully believing he could insult other people’s culture and with impunity and he believed he would be protected in his racism and bigotry by the French state.  Well he was wrong, unfortunately in paying the price for his arrogance he took another 11 people with him.  Power cultures all like to use the old chestnut of freedom of speech when they choose to ridicule people who aren’t exactly like them, and mostly they get away with it.  The privilege of free speech brings with it responsibilities and has ramifications too.  These guys liked the privilege but didn’t think they’d be caught up in the ramifications – they were wrong.  This should serve as a lesson to other people who believe they can use the power they wield by way of dominating the media to abuse and ridicule others they believe to be inferior to them – just like in this country.

Reaction was immediate.  Fox was criticized for “victim blaming” and being insensitive, the comment was called “disgusting”, the Maori party distanced themselves from association with him.  A much better reaction, one might say, than being killed, as Charlie Hebdo staff were when they published something that offended a lot of people.

The point where I agree with Fox is in the responsibility that comes with the freedom of speech, a point also made by a Dominion Post editorial in a less controversial way when it stated that

newspapers do not have to do something merely because they have the right to do it. … Avoiding gratuitous offence is not cowardice or a betrayal of the responsibilities of the fourth estate.

In our society it is NOT okay to say or print anything you like. New Zealand has libel laws against making untrue statements about people and we have a Human Rights law against inciting hatred against groups of people.  However, exactly what is considered offensive enough to contravene the law is a grey area, as Cas Mudde puts it: “it is impossible to measure whether people are upset, let alone objectively compare how upset they are.” There is no doubt that Charlie Hebdo made a point of occupying this grey area between ‘funny’ and ‘offensive’ – they have been often criticised for this in the past. Some commentators are worried that with these killings, more journalists will censor themselves out of fear of possible repercussions. Such self-censorship is not conducive to free speech but  I believe that self-censorship out of respect for others is, in the same way that the Dominion Post editorial mentioned earlier suggested that having the right to do something does not imply that it must be done – there is still choice, and responsibility.  The most productive free speech debate in my opinion is that around the difference in what it is legal to say, and what is moral and ethical to say.

The responsibility that comes with free speech is also about guarding others’ right to free speech.  It needs to be guarded for all people, even – especially – those who disagree with the majority, such as Derek. Yet what do we guard against? Clearly our society generally holds the view that people should not be killed for what they have said or published, but what level of violence are we prepared to accept? Is making threats without the follow up action acceptable? What sort of threat would it need to be to be taken seriously – death, property or rape threats? what about general hate mail and public/personal vilification? How much of this would our NZ society tolerate before saying that this was interfering with freedom of speech? The argument now starts to get on difficult ground as harassment of this more ‘minor’ sort is prevalent – perhaps Sue Moroney could give us an indication of how common this is in NZ (as I believe it is), from the time when she was championing the Amendment of the Crimes Act. With the growth of social media as a method of expressing opinions, overwhelming vilification of outspoken critics becomes easier, faster, more inescapable. There is a real danger, I think, that when occurs, it starts to limit the freedom of speech to the rich and powerful only; not something I would like to see.