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Rachel Poullain: Without Freedom of Speech There Is No Freedom

At the Free Speech Rallies that were held on Saturday 14th July, a speech was given by Rachel Poulain, a member of the newly formed Free Speech Coalition. Below is the transcript of her speech and a recording of the same is embedded after it. She describes herself as a classical liberal and is also an artist and animal rights activist.

Kia ora koutou, ko rahera taku ingoa.

Hi everyone, my name is Rachel.

I’m proud to be one of the backers of the Aotearoa Free Speech Coalition. It’s fair to say I don’t have much in common with Don Brash or Chris Trotter or any other members of the coalition. But, as we are often reminded by the people who occupy these buildings around us, a coalition isn’t always a bunch of individuals who all share the exact same world view.

If our three currently governing parties all got together for drinks I’m pretty sure they’d find something argue about. But, something’s obviously uniting them — as is the case with the Free Speech Coalition.

Activists often say, “This is something that affects all of us!” but I don’t think that could be truer than when it comes to freedom of speech.

I try not to attach any political labels to myself, but it’d be accurate to describe me as a classical liberal. My views are fairly progressive (in the original sense of the word). When I see other self-described ‘liberal/progressive’ types wanting to place limits on and make exceptions for free speech, I want to remind them that, more often than not, ‘progress’ starts with dissent.

Just because you’re sitting comfortably with the majority today, doesn’t mean you will be tomorrow. Anyone who’s studied their history will know there have been many times when the majority has gotten it wrong.

I support the legal action against the Auckland Council because I don’t believe a public servant like Phil Goff should be able to pick and choose who is allowed a platform and who is not, in order to satisfy the mainstream political attitude of the day.

The council’s justification for the decision was that a so-called ‘peace action’ group was threatening to intimidate and harass attendees and staff if the event were to go ahead, so it was in everybody’s best interests to shut it down.

That is cowardly and dangerous precedent.

These Canadians are no doubt controversial. But controversy comes as a package deal with freedom of speech in a liberal democracy. Freedom to speak is an extension of the freedom to think. It is an essential part of how we communicate, learn and grow. Sharing our thoughts with other human beings, like I’m doing right now, and receiving feedback on those thoughts is how we develop our ideas and beliefs. It’s how we self-reflect. We voice our thoughts, find out what others think about our thoughts so we can then analyse them, re-evaluate them and change our minds accordingly.

Freedom of speech is the fundamental means by which a civil society settles its differences of opinion. It is what gives us the ability to question, challenge and oppose the powers that be.

Without freedom of speech, there would have been no civil-rights movement.

There would be no liberation of marginalised groups or recalling of archaic laws.

There would be no change; no progress.

Protecting freedom of speech sometimes means defending the right of people you disagree with to express views you may personally find abhorrent. ‘Objectionable speech’ is to be debated, reasoned and argued with, not censored or banned.

It is not up to the government to decide which speech ‘divides’ and which ‘unites’.

We all know history never looks back kindly on those who try to eliminate dissenting thought. The word ‘Nazi’ has been thrown around casually with regard to these speakers – in my opinion, disingenuously.

What the people who would ban them are forgetting is that the real Nazis came to power by suppressing free speech. Their hideous ideology took root, in part, because they banned any ideas they deemed subversive. They silenced their political opponents, they censored art and they burned books.

Suppression of free speech led to unimaginable atrocities.

Suppression of freedom of speech as it pertains to this situation may also have unintended side effects. Attempting to silence a certain sector of society can sometimes have the opposite effect. If people with dangerous ideas are not able to express them in public, they will be driven underground where their ignorance and hatred can fester and thrive. That process of feedback and self-reflection is removed when you put people in an echo chamber.

Sunlight is the best disinfectant. Truly dangerous ideas need to be examined in broad daylight, not hidden in darkness. The price of freedom of speech is that each of us will inevitably be exposed to opinions we disagree with or find offensive. This is the cost of living of a free society, and it’s a very fair price to pay.

We can’t afford to trade our freedom ‘of’ for freedom ‘from’.

Freedom of expression is the lifeblood of art, culture and creativity. Without it, no one could push boundaries or challenge the status quo. Without freedom of expression, there would be no subversive literature, music, comedy or theatre. As an artist, I cannot condone censorship: political or cultural. This is why I am speaking out and why I support the Free Speech Coalition.

My pro-diversity values include the diversity of thought and opinion. I believe in freedom of speech for all, not only those who share my personal worldview. Without freedom of speech, there is no freedom.

Nga mihi.

Thank you very much.


About the author

Rachel is an artist/writer and classical liberal. Free speech and animal welfare advocate. The transcript of this speech can also be found on Whaleoil.