Freedom to teach and freedom of speech

Roger Partridge
Insights Newsletter
27 April, 2018

Tracey Martin wants to regulate the meaning of a commonly used word. It is a breath-taking ambition, even for a politician.
The Associate Education Minister’s target is the word ‘teacher’. She thinks it would improve the status of the profession if Parliament restricts use of the term to registered teachers. And her private members’ Bill (technically now sponsored by her NZ First colleague, Jenny Marcroft) aims to do just that.
Neither appear bothered that the word has a wider meaning in the English language. (I thought I did pretty well ‘teaching’ my daughter to fish. And my son loved his guitar ‘teacher’.)
Nor is Martin concerned about the cost and inconvenience to countless dance, swimming, and music teachers around the country (to name just a few). While the Bill would permit them to call themselves ‘tutors’, or even ‘instructors’, all would have to change how they promote their services. Pity the poor piano teacher.
Occupational licensing is usually justified on consumer protection grounds – not to ‘bolster’ the status of a profession. But with this Bill, there will likely be no change to the quality of services offered by the ‘once-were-teachers’. And it is not obvious how picking on piano teachers will improve the status of the teaching profession.
Of course, many professions are regulated. It is illegal for someone not admitted to the Bar to call themselves a barrister. And there are restrictions on who can call themselves medical doctors, financial advisers, and even electricians.
But there are also countless professions where registration is not required. It’s open season if you want to call yourself an accountant, a builder, or even an economist. 
Open-entry professions deal with the absence of restrictions by creating their own designations - like ‘chartered accountant’ - as a mark of quality. Indeed, the teaching profession itself already has this type of protection. The Education Act makes it an offence for anyone to use the title ‘registered teacher’ when they are not registered.
But there is a more important objection to the Bill. Our language is ours. If we let politicians start changing the meaning of commonly understood words where will it end? What occupation comes next? Perhaps farmers? Or journalists? Or even political commentators?
Fortunately, the Attorney-General has recognised the danger. In his New Zealand Bill of Rights Act report, David Parker has found that the Bill would involve an unjustified limitation on freedom of expression.
We can only hope his Labour colleagues listen.

Stay in the loop: Subscribe to updates