At first blush the censorship of the Christchurch killer's document explaining the attacks may look like a serious intrusion on free speech. But context and content are everything
The Chief Censor, David Shanks, has ruled The Great Replacement, supposedly the manifesto of the Christchurch terrorist, to be an objectionable piece of work. Accordingly, it is an offence for any person to possess, copy or distribute the work in New Zealand. This has led to dismay on the part of some free speech advocates who, while not endorsing the shooter’s sentiments, take a highly principled approach to such matters.
In this case, however, it may pay to think again.
I have not read the manifesto which, since it is banned, means that I guess I never will. However, it is my working assumption that the tract is (at least in part) a handbook exhorting readers to commit specific crimes. We know, from official statements, that it includes suggestions of other places to attack and an argument to justify the murder of children.
Such works are not, and never have been, forms of expression considered worthy of protection by the law.
The liberty to say what you want is a foundational liberty in that it is a necessary precondition of the other freedoms we cherish. It is to hold a privileged place in our legal system, therefore, and we should generally be deferential to its concerns. But liberty is not the same thing as an absolute licence, however, and nearly all liberal thinkers have recognised the need for some restraints on what people say.
Laws against (or providing remedies against) defamation, child pornography, leaking classified information, copyright violation and perjury are all recognised as justifiable restraints on the freedom to say what one pleases. Incitement to crime is another example.
In none of those cases are we talking about the suppression of ideas per se.
It may be clarifying to use an analogy here. Let’s say I form the political opinion that theft is not morally wrong and should be legalised. It would be a wrongful view, but one that I am permitted to hold and propagate the opinion in a free society (absurd as it is). It would be a different thing altogether for me to create a publication setting out the best methods for burglary while encouraging people to rob specific houses and shops with detailed instructions as to how to pull the jobs off.
Nobody who has considered matters carefully really believes that freedom of speech is absolute. That this obvious fact is often cited to rationalise political censorship by the authoritarian at heart is frustrating. When it comes to this document however, I seriously doubt the work has been banned due to its political content (as abhorrent as that is).
I get why freedom of speech proponents have instinctively blanched at the Chief Censor’s news. That was my initial reaction too.
However, if anything may be suppressed in a free society then surely a practical instruction manual for murder and terrorism is a worthy candidate.