In praise of Steve Crow?

Steve Crow, Aotearoa's porn king, isn't necessarily the sort of free speech hero we might want to celebrate. But his fight with the Auckland City Council is one we all should support

Anyone who has seen the movie The People vs. Larry Flynt will know that society doesn't always get the heroes it might want. Specifically, those who push the boundaries and advocate strongest for the freedoms we all enjoy often are not the sort of folks we'd like to pop by our house for a beer and a BBQ.

So it goes with Steve Crow, the porn entrepreneur behind the annual Erotica Lifestyles Expo and Boobs on Bikes parade. He's been fighting an extended battle with the Auckland City Council, which disapproves of a pornographer using its streets to advertise his, let us say questionable, means of earning a crust.

Last year they refused him a permit to hold the parade. His response was effectively to say, "Stuff you and your permit—we'll just take a drive down Queen Street anyway." The Council then went to the District Court, seeking an injunction to stop him doing so. But the Court refused to grant it, pointing out that it isn't illegal for a group of people to drive down a street, the crowds that gather to watch them driving don't form any immediate public safety risk, and it isn't necessarily offensive for topless women to appear in public.

Game over, you might think. But the Council apparently isn't finished yet. It set up a "working party" on creating a bylaw to stop future parades. The councillor chairing that group, Graeme Mulholland, is now recommending that the Council write to John Key "to put Council's case and seek a legislative change to enable the Council to regulate events that are not deemed suitable to the public domain".

But hang on a minute. Why does the Council need to drag John Key in here? Councils already have the power to make bylaws for the purpose of "minimising the potential for offensive behaviour in public places." So why can't it just write one to stop the Boobs on Bikes parade, behaviour the Council clearly thinks is "offensive"?

The problem lies with the prohibition on Councils making bylaws that contravene the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990. And clearly the legal advice the Council has got is that any bylaw that would work to stop Boobs on Bikes also would impose an unjustifiable limit on the right to freedom of expression of those involved (as well as anyone else who might get deemed "offensive" in the Council's eyes in the future).

So what the Council now wants is for central government (actually, Parliament) to give it the power to regulate behaviour it doesn't like to see on its streets, even if that regulation unjustifiably limits the expressive rights of the population at large.

Now, I'm no free speech absolutist. There's lots of situations where your right to express yourself as you would like gives way to values such as public decency. (Carrying out a naked March for World Peace through a primary school's grounds, for instance.) But if you can't make the argument that the limit on expression is justifiable in terms of those values, then it is a cheat to try and rewrite the rules to let you impose it anyway. That's the whole point of having something like the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990; to remind us that rights aren't just things to be abandoned when they become inconvenient.

So I say good on Steve Crow, in spite of my deep reservations about what he does for a living. Like Larry Flynt, Paul Hopkinson and Allistair Brooker, he joins the ranks of individuals who may express themselves in a way we disagree with, but we ought to defend to the death anyway.