In September 1969, hippies thronged to Auckland’s Albert Park to stand up for free speech, protest the Vietnam War, and enjoy the grass. It was part of a movement for free love and free minds that was sweeping the English-speaking world at the time. They called the weekend rock concerts ‘jumping Sundays’ after the hippies’ impromptu dancing.
Last Saturday, Albert Park was the site of a very different sort of event. This one was also part of a movement sweeping the English-speaking world, but it wasn’t part a movement in favour of free speech, but of a movement that opposes it.
Kellie-Jay Keen-Minshull (a.k.a. Posie Parker), a British activist who is sceptical of contemporary gender ideology, had planned to make two stops in New Zealand (in Auckland and Wellington) after several talks in Australia.
In Albert Park, she was prevented from speaking. One protestor poured a can of tomato juice over her. She was surrounded by a large crowd that her security detail struggled to keep away from her. Keen-Minshull later said that she genuinely feared for her life. She left the country soon afterwards, cancelling her Wellington event.
Nor was this the only violence. An elderly man was elbowed in the face, and an elderly woman punched several times, both apparently by individuals protesting Keen-Minshull’s appearance. Green MP Marama Davidson, who was also protesting Keen-Minshull, was struck by a motorcycle while crossing the road and received medical attention.
There is no doubt that Keen-Minshull is a controversial figure. In 2019, she was questioned by UK police after describing the surgery a trans person had undergone as castration. In January of this year, Pink News reported that a speaker at an event organized by Keen-Minshull had quoted Hitler’s Mein Kampf. And earlier this month, a group of neo-Nazis appeared near where Keen-Minshull was speaking in Melbourne – though their rally seems to have been separate from her event, and she has since explicitly denounced them.
In the end, though, none of this has much bearing in what happened on Saturday. A visitor to this country was prevented from speaking and made to fear for her life by violent bullies. She had her free speech rights violated, and the New Zealand police were nowhere to be seen.
Both the UN Universal Declaration on Human Rights and the New Zealand Bill of Rights protect freedom of expression. In both cases, this includes the right to impart ideas or opinions. Making noise or calling out in order to disrupt a speaker is not normally considered protected speech. As the US jurist Erwin Chemerinksy has written, ‘Freedom of speech, on campuses and elsewhere, is rendered meaningless if speakers can be shouted down by those who disagree.’
Some within New Zealand have compared the episode to the notorious 1981 Springbok tour of the country. Protestors swarmed pitches to present the All Blacks playing against a team from apartheid South Africa, and one test match was called off as a result. But the Springboks were not expressing ideas; nor was Kellie-Jay Keen-Minshull representing an explicitly racist regime. Those who argue that Keen-Minshull speaking would have led to the fundamental rights of trans people being disregarded need to spell out which rights would have been violated, and how.
It is true that the vast majority of the protestors did not engage in violence. We should also bear in mind that the vast majority of trans people oppose the violence that took place on Sunday. There are, though, clear signs that many of those who thronged around Keen-Minshull on Sunday had drunk the Kool-Aid that speech can be violence, and therefore that violence is an appropriate response to speech. One protestor held up a sign which read ‘These boots stomp TERFs.’
Amid all the arguments and recriminations on social media, one question remains unanswered. What exactly would have happened if Keen-Minshull had simply been allowed to speak on Saturday, with those who wanted to being allowed to disagree with her afterwards?
The answer, of course, is that had the police done their job and protected Keen-Minshull’s free speech rights, the British feminist would have given a short and provocative speech to a few supporters and a much larger group of critics. The critics would almost certainly then have monopolized discussion at any Q&A. Most would have gone away with the same views as they had brought to the event; a few might have had their views change. And then everyone would have gone home. The universal rights to freedom of expression of everyone involved would have remained intact.
As would the reputation of New Zealand as a one of the world’s most open societies. Now, of course, this reputation has received another much-deserved beating. Only a few weeks ago, Richard Dawkins’ visit to these shores reminded us of the disgraceful actions of the Royal Society in investigating a number of its fellows after they wrote a letter defending science against attacks on it as intrinsically colonialist. Now New Zealand is making headlines around the world once again, and for all the wrong reasons.
That will be the legacy of this weekend’s event at Albert Park. It is difficult to imagine a more complete or a more shameful repudiation of a former generation of Kiwis’ embrace of love, tolerance, and free speech.