Free speech switched off in New Zealand

Removing a billboard poster because of who paid for it, rather than what it says, is aiding bigotry, plain and simple, says Jonathan Ayling, campaign manager for the Free Speech Union.

Ayling was commenting after posters on prominent billboard sites by Voices For Freedom were switched off or taken down by site owners following 11 complaints to private advertising agencies, of which 10 were dismissed.

Voices for Freedom says it had more than 60 screens promoting its free speech campaign for a fortnight, including 20 billboards.

“We’ve lost count of the number of mainstream news articles (both print and online) that have featured us and the billboards during this time,” says Voices for Freedom.

Ayling says that at the heart of freedom of speech is a commitment to meeting argument with counter-argument, false claims with factual claims.

“Freedom of speech is tolerance, and trust in truth and fearless debate to persuade your fellow citizens,” he says.

“But it is also realism, the experience that suppression of messages unwelcome to the authorities can just feed mistrust. It is the Streisand effect in public information campaigns.

A poster produced by Voices for Freedom.

“Lumo Digital Outdoor’s decision to remove a billboard which had previously been approved and had already gone live, simply because they learn of unpopular stances of the advertisers on other issues is likely to build the kind of rusted-in division and mistrust that now bedevils public health campaigns across the western world.

“The Free Speech Union recognises the right of private businesses to choose whose messages they carry, as long as they are not de facto monopolies or in a collusive oligopoly.

“But we urge Lumo Digital to consider the precedent effects. Will they research and critique each opinion held by each organisation going forward, to ensure they are in alignment with Lumo’s perspective?

“Does Lumo want to have to defend its position with regard each advertiser’s perceived moral standing? Would it not be safer for them, and for our democracy and tradition of tolerance plus vigorous debate, for them to announce and stick to a policy of impartiality, absent illegality.

“The Free Speech Union does not endorse the advertisements. But even those who are patently wrong have a right to express themselves, a right to conversation.