It’s official. The Bruce Mason centre, owned by Auckland Council, did not behave illegally when it cancelled alt-right speakers Lauren Southern and Stefan Molyneux more than two years ago.
Detailed in a Court of Appeal judgment released last week, Regional Facilities Auckland (RFA) – the council-owned company which runs the venue – was found to be justified in its 2018 decision because of the anticipated health and safety, and security risks associated with the event.
Alongside this, the court also looked at what responsibilities a council-controlled organisation like the RFA has in the hotly debated realm of freedom of expression. On this point, it overturned the earlier High Court decision, and outlined the special responsibility of city-owned organisations which controlled public assets. Essentially, because you’re owned by the people, there’s a bit more to it than the bottom line and cost of security. Due process, and then some, should be taken to ensure public assets are used for many forms of expression.
It’s an important point from the court, one which may seem particularly tough to swallow in the context of the hate and vitriol Southern and Molyneux pedal. Back when things kicked off, Mayor Phil Goff’s loud stand really got things going. On one hand, it seemed morally sound, even cool, that the city’s leading elected official declared the pair’s messaging unwelcome and divisive. On the other, I do remember thinking: Is it really appropriate for him to come out swinging like that?
It’s not a statement I make lightly. Southern and Molyneux’s views, their behaviour and what they encourage, cause real harm. The radicalisation of the Christchurch terrorist is an example of the devastating impact ideology like theirs, spread online, has off it.
Perhaps the better point to examine is whether we lose anything when someone like Goff takes such a heavy-footed approach. Or at least wants to appear like they do.
For me, a large part of that is rooted in what’s genuinely driving the objection. Yes, it’s important for leaders to speak out, but do their actions match what’s being said? Further, if they are taking a stand, is it in a way that enables fair debate around pertinent issues like freedom of expression and free speech. Also relevant is whether the message they are sending is in keeping with their role in public office. In this instance, Goff’s behaviour had a direct impact on employees at RFA tasked with determining the right way forward.
Notably, evidence from the earlier High Court case highlighted communications between the mayor’s office and RFA outlining how eager Goff was to announce the venue cancellation via Twitter. Messages from RFA stated: “There are big legal issues at stake with big price tags if we get the wording wrong.
In the end, Goff’s behaviour was shown to be a bit off the mark. Turns out, he wasn’t actually responsible for venue hire at the Bruce Mason centre. Indeed, an extensive investigation into RFA’s security vetting processes showed the organisation was not equipped to deal with the complications of a large protest. Cancelling Southern and Molyneux was therefore a victory for protest movement Auckland Peace Action. Nowhere did it require involvement from the mayor.
Did Goff’s behaviour, therefore, make it more difficult to weave through the issues at play?
Here, I believe the Court of Appeal’s conclusion regarding the responsibility of council-controlled organisations around freedom of expression is relevant.
Like the RFA, the mayor holds an important and powerful space for engaging and encouraging a range of discussions. In similar fashion, careful consideration of potential, ongoing implications regarding strong messages and comments should occur.
A good place to start would be to clarify exactly what the mayor’s office is responsible for. Then any stance formed can build on that.
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