'There should be limits' to free speech - Council for Civil Liberties

A free speech watchdog says it has no problem with the banning of the alleged Christchurch gunman's manifesto.

The Chief Censor at the weekend declared the 74-page document 'objectionable', meaning it's now an offence to possess or share it. The maximum penalty for doing so is 14 years in jail.

"Every time we classify a document as objectionable, that is a limit of free speech - and we take that very seriously," Chief Censor David Shanks told The AM Show on Monday morning.

"We've applied exactly the same framework that we would apply to an [Islamic State] promotional pamphlet or another terrorist document."

The decision, which came a few days after video of the attack shot by the killer and broadcast live on the internet was also deemed objectionable, has outraged free speech activists.

"This is a completely improper use of the censorship powers," Free Speech Coalition spokesperson Stephen Franks said. "Most New Zealanders will have no interest in reading the rants of an evil person. But there is a major debate going on right now on the causes of extremism. Kiwis should not be wrapped in cotton wool with their news and information censored."

David Shanks.
David Shanks. Photo credit: The AM Show

But another free speech group, the NZ Council for Civil Liberties, says the Chief Censor's decision falls "right in the middle" of what the law calls for.

"It's not an extreme ruling or a novel interpretation of the law," chairperson Thomas Beagle told Magic Talk on Monday.

"I think it's important that people in New Zealand do know the basis for what has happened. I'm not sure whether they need the interpretations from the media, or go read it themselves. We believe that freedom of expression is important, but we also believe there should be limits to it, as is justifiable in a free and democratic society. And I can't see this particular ban as being a serious impediment to that."

Beagle said it wasn't a "gross invasion" of free speech, and even if the document wasn't banned, sharing it could contravene other laws - such as the Human Rights Act, which outlaws inciting racial disharmony. The manifesto details the gunman's white supremacist and anti-migrant views.

Beagle said the Chief Censor's ruling is more symbolic than practical.

"It's well out there by now. If you want a copy of it, you can get it on the internet. There's no question about that."

And just possessing the document is unlikely to see anyone jailed for the full 14 years, he added.

"I think if someone actually got 14 years in jail it would be draconian. But the law allows for a lot more range. One consideration you might want to take into account is, how would you feel if someone printed off 10,000 copies of it and started handing it out, outside mosques? That would possibly be a case where you might want to look at the higher end of it."

He said the law - the Films, Videos and Publications Classification Act 1993 - is the same one used to outlaw child pornography and other terrorist material - including that produced by Islamic State.

Other causes the NZ Council for Civil Liberties has taken up include backing David Seymour's End of Life Choice Bill and the removal of New Zealand's blasphemy laws, and fighting against spy agencies having greater access to Kiwis' data.

Mein Kampf by Hitler
Mein Kampf by Hitler isn't banned. Photo credit: Getty

The Free Speech Coalition said it wasn't right to ban the manifesto while still allowing genocidal Nazi leader Adolf Hitler's work Mein Kampf to grace bookshelves.

The Chief Censor said the difference between the two is the alleged gunman's document contained specific threats, while Mein Kampf was a "reflection of evil ideas".

"It's a fine line, but we have that line prescribed in law," said Shanks.

Beagle echoed that view, saying the manifesto was "more than just a political tract".

"The Censor noted it essentially promotes and encourages criminal acts of terrorism, and it contains actual particular calls for people to do particular acts and particular attacks on particular people in the country. So it's not just a political manifesto - it's also a calling for violence."

The Free Speech Coalition says it is seeking advice on how to "launch an effective challenge" to the Chief Censor's ruling.