You have the right to free speech as long as you're not dumb enough to actually try it

"Everyone has the right to freedom of expression, including the freedom to seek, receive, and impart information and opinions of any kind in any form." Discuss.

A couple of "free speech" issues have arisen in the last week - one a bit ho-hum, the other somewhat more serious.

The first case is that of Martin "Bomber" Bradbury and his blackballing from Radio New Zealand National's (RNZ's) "The Panel" afternoon chat show. He had been an occasional guest on this show until last week, when the RNZ powers-that-be decided his "what's on your mind?" rant against John Key was the sort of opinion mongering they didn't want to be associated with.

(You can read the offending screed on "Bomber's" blog here if you want to ... suffice to say it mixes a bunch of legitimate gripes about John Key's recent actions with some over-the-top rhetoric ("...the sort of ravings one expects from a meth addict on a bender, not the political leader of a country") to create a fairly pedestrian hatchet job that will delight those who already dislike the man and simply irritate everyone else.)

What is interesting, however, is the reaction to RNZ's decision from other bloggers who appear on the show. It has ranged from the condemnatory (Brian Edwards) to the rueful "it had to happen" (Chris Trotter) to the shrugging "meh" (Scott Yorke) to the cautiously supportive (David Farrar) to the cravenly silent in the face of disgraceful censorship (yes, Tim Watkin ... I'm looking at you).

For me, "Bomber's" fate is all a bit reminiscent of the BBC's decision to ban the Sex Pistol's "God Save the Queen". If your primary claim to fame is that you are outside of the establishment kicking the doors in, then the only true proof of your credentials is that the establishment turns its back on you. But the day you hear your song booming forth on the state-funded broadcaster, you know you've gone from being truly radical to merely safe nostalga for those who used to be young (or, even worse, become the in-house "youth" provocateur used to prove how hip and with-it the station is).

So, if "Bomber" really is all about keepin' it real by kickin' against the pricks, not only was The Panel an awfully odd place to be doing it, but getting booted off it should be a real badge of pride. And if he isn't, and it was all a bit of ham acting that got out of hand, then it's an object lesson in the dangers of overplaying your role. All a bit of no harm, no foul then: "Bomber" is confirmed in the outsider status that pays the bills across a variety of media platforms, National Radio's basic risk-aversion and establishment role is underscored, and its listener base is saved from having to be hectored with verbatim recitals of whatever happens to have posted on "Bomber's" blog recently.

Of more concern, I think, is Speaker Lockwood Smith's decision to ban all reporters working for the NZ Herald from accessing parliamentary precents for 10 days after their paper published a photograph of a disturbed man trying to leap from the public galleries into the debating chamber below. The basis for this ban is that the rules on filming and photographing in the House prohibit showing any disturbances in the public galleries, to discourage people from carrying out such behaviour in pursuit of media attention for their cause.

There's two matters to discuss here. The first is the background motive for the Speaker's action. This punishment seems to be part of his determined effort to force the news media to play within the rules that parliamentarians have set for them. (I posted on an earlier, somewhat less heavy handed, response here.) As he is quoted as saying here: ""The Standing Orders in Parliament are not just general protocols - they are actually the rules of Parliament and all members of ... the press gallery have to comply with them."

That may be true. And it may be true that the Herald's decision to publish the photo was in technical contravention of those rules. But so what? Is it true, as the Speaker carries on to say, "If [the Herald's actions were] allowed, there would likely be an escalation of incidents and we'd have no choice but to block off the gallery and I think that would be a real shame.''

I have my doubts. After all, it was clear by the time that the Herald published the photo that the man involved was not acting out of any rational strategy to maximise media coverage of his situation. Likely he wasn't really thinking about his actions at all. So it's not as if publishing a shot of his action will encourage a flock of copy-cat demonstrations in the gallery - as would, for example, a decision to publish a photo of a group waving protest banners or the like.

The Speaker's prediction that the Herald's action will lead to "an escalation of incidents" thus seems to rest on a belief that other disturbed individuals will see the attention given to this man and decide "I'd like a bit of that too, thanks." But is this really likely? Is there any real evidence that printing a photo of a disturbed individual doing something dangerous in public - sitting on a window ledge threatening to jump, or dangling a baby over a balcony - causes other disturbed people to do similar things? And if that isn't the result in public, why would it be any different in Parliament?

Of course, the Speaker may respond that irrespective of the question of whether there was real harm done, it still isn't for the Herald to pick and choose which parliamentary rules to follow. However, this misses the point somewhat. Because when it comes to his enforcing those rules and punishing rule breakers, the Speaker is bound to apply them in accordance with the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990.

Under this legislation, the Herald has a right to freedom of expression (including taking and publishing photos of disturbances in the Gallery) that can only be limited when it is "demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society." This means that when the Speaker comes to consider whether the Herald's action is a breach of Parliament's rules barring that expression, he has to show that the decision it is such a breach (and the resultant punishment) can be justified in this fashion. And if he can't, then his actions are in contravention of the law.

In short, the Speaker can't just say "I consider the rule was broken and here's the penalty". He rather has to be able to say "finding this particular action is in breach of the rules, and then punishing it in this way, is justified because of these particular reasons." And if the only reason is "the act contravened the wording of the rule, even if it didn't really cause the problem the rule is intended to avoid", then that just isn't good enough.

Of course, in one way it is neither here nor there that the Speaker may well have acted in breach of a law - the NZBORA - when taking his decision. You can't challenge the Speaker's application of Parliament's rules in court - it simply isn't a matter a judge will look at. But you would like to think that the Speaker is somewhat concerned to abide by the law when deciding how Parliament will be run.

I think that would be nice, anyhow. And if RNZ is looking for a new panelist, I will say things like that in very moderate, non-defamatory tones ... all for a very reasonable price.

Now ... where did I store my copy of Never Mind the Bollocks?