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On Rachel Stewart and freedom of speech

I see that former New Zealand Herald columnist Rachel Stewart is positioning herself as a champion of free speech.
Karl du Fresne
Contributing Writer
September 22nd, 2022

OPINION: In a self-promoting column (that’s almost a tautology, since everything Stewart writes seems to be self-promoting), she draws attention to her recent appearance on The Platform’s Free Speech Friday and praises Sean Plunket’s online radio station – quite rightly – for holding out against the suppression of politically unfashionable opinions.

Fair enough. We should welcome and encourage anyone who’s genuinely committed to the principle that people should be able to write or say what they think, provided it doesn’t advocate violence or harm.

But I can’t help wondering when Stewart joined the cause, because in two posts several years ago I cited instances when she made it very clear that she didn’t think the right of free speech extended to people she disagreed with or disapproved of.

One of those people was me. Stewart couldn’t understand why the Dominion Post published a column by me when they could have one written by her. To be precise, she tweeted: “I read Karl du Fresne in the Dom and quite apart from the fact that I agree with him on nothing, I think to myself they could have me.”

Translated: “My opinions are superior, so why don’t they get rid of him?” – hardly a ringing defence of people’s right to say things she doesn’t like.

Okay, in this case I could be accused of being over-sensitive. But not so in the other instance, in which Stewart launched a full-on attack against an Otago Daily Times columnist who had criticised virtue-signalling broadcasters for showing off their mastery of te reo during Maori Language Week. Stewart wrote then that she believed in free speech “absolutely” but added that she struggled with what “basically amounts to gratuitous hate speech”.

Ah, the old, familiar “I believe in free speech, but …” line. Whenever I hear the words “I believe in free speech” followed immediately by a disclaimer excluding whatever opinion/s the speaker happens to object to, I file it under F for fake.

I suspect that what may have happened in Stewart’s case since then – her Road to Damascus experience, if you like – is that she’s found the walls closing in around her. Her own opinions once fell within the ideologically acceptable zone (she was in safe territory attacking dirty dairying and supposed racism), but the range of permissible opinions has narrowed to the point where even she feels threatened.

The ground has shifted under her. No one is safe now from woke vigilantes. The Herald's disgraceful refusal in 2019 to publish a restrained and rationally argued column in which Stewart supported the right of feminists to oppose the virulent trans-gender lobby would have been a wake-up moment.

To put it another way, my guess is that Stewart became a champion of free speech only when her own rights came under attack. But if that experience has made her a genuine advocate for freedom of expression rather than a Claytons one, that can be no bad thing.

Clarification: The original version of this post implied Stewart was sacked by the Herald. I've since learned that according to Stewart, she severed her relationship with the paper after it refused to publish her column criticising Massey University for cancelling a feminist meeting about transgenderism.

Article originally published on Karl du Fresne's blog and republished to The Platform with permission.

Karl is a freelance journalist and blogger living in the Wairarapa region of New Zealand.