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Free speech is the ally, not enemy, of marginalised peoples

In brief

  • History shows that free speech has been an essential tool for advocating rights and social change.
  • Women used free speech to campaign for the right to vote, leading to victories like New Zealand’s 1893 suffrage success.
  • Free speech was instrumental in revitalising Māori language and culture, official recognition, and the establishment of Māori Television.
  • Limiting free speech can silence marginalised voices.

Free speech is a powerful ally of the marginalised

During a recent visit to Auckland hosted by the Free Speech Union, founder Toby Young, who also serves as associate editor of the UK site The Daily Sceptic, asserted that, contrary to beliefs held in certain political circles, free speech has been a valuable ally for marginalised peoples.

Women’s suffrage is a testament to the power of free speech

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, women worldwide, including in New Zealand, used their voices to demand the right to vote. 

Activists like Kate Sheppard organised rallies, published articles, and petitioned the government, leading New Zealand to become the first country to grant women’s suffrage in 1893 (the first jurisdiction to give women the vote ever was the US state of Wyoming, in 1869). Similarly, Meri Te Tai Mangakāhia was the first woman to address the Kotahitanga Parliament in the same year.

Although New Zealand women gained the right to vote in 1893, they were not permitted to stand for the House of Representatives until the 1919 election. 

 In 1933 Elizabeth McCombs of the Labour Party became the first woman elected to the New Zealand Parliament. This feat would not have been possible without leveraging her freedom to to speak, ultimately winning the support of the electorate.

The Māori renaissance: revitalising culture through free expression

The Māori renaissance began in the mid-20th century and illustrates how free speech can revitalise and preserve cultural identity. Like the suffragettes before them, through public speeches, written works, and participation in media, they brought Māori issues to the forefront of national consciousness. 

This movement led to significant legislative changes, including the recognition of te reo Māori as an official language in 1987 and the establishment of Māori Television in 2004. 

The Te Reo Māori Society, formed in 1969, was influential in the Māori Language Petition and used media, public forums, and educational institutions to advocate for the preservation and revitalization of the language. Their work led to the introduction of Māori language programming on national radio and television. 

In 1972, Hana Te Hemara led the presentation of a petition to the New Zealand Parliament, signed by over 30,000 people, calling for the Māori language to be taught in schools.

Dame Whina Cooper used speeches and public gatherings to address historical grievances and issues related to land loss faced by Māori communities throughout the 1975 Land March.

Māori broadcasting advocacy

Leaders like broadcaster Derek Fox fought for and established Māori Television, which began broadcasting in 2004. Their efforts ensured these voices were heard and represented in the media landscape and promoted to a wider audience.

Foreshore and seabed hikoi

In response to the government’s Foreshore and Seabed Act 2004, which many Māori saw as an erosion of their customary rights, thousands participated in the hikoi (march) to Parliament. 

Leaders like Tariana Turia, who left the Labour Party to form the Māori Party, used this protest to speak out against the legislation, in order to draw attention to the importance of Māori rights to their traditional lands.

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