Anti-vaccination group Voices for Freedom's billboards taken down after 'harassing people' trying to get vaccines

Digital billboards from a prominent anti-vaccination group have been pulled because of members' "harassing" and "abusive" behaviour at the weekend's mass vaccination event in Auckland.  

Voices for Freedom's campaign focused on free speech issues, with slogans like 'without free speech, you're not free' and 'your voice is the first thing they take / your freedom goes next'.

One specifically referred to a line used by Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern in March 2020, when she told reporters the Government would be the "single source of truth" when it came to COVID-19, after conspiracy theories and false information started spreading on social media. 

The adverts went live on Monday at sites around Auckland, including one on the front of RNZ's building in the central city. 

A billboard outside RNZ.
A billboard outside RNZ. Photo credit: Voices for Freedom/Instagram

Kent Harrison of Lumo Digital, one of the billboard companies that ran the ads, told Newshub the group called on Friday night and the deal was done on Sunday - but "no alarm bells went off".

When the ads went live though, people started getting in touch.

"People messaged me and said, 'Hey - are you guys aware these guys are blah blah blah?' And we sat down and pretty quickly said no, this is not aligned with our values."

Harrison said while there was nothing wrong with the content of the billboards, he found out Voices for Freedom members had been at the mass vaccination event in Manukau over the weekend - but not to get vaccinated. Footage on social media showed members of the group, without masks, at the Manukau Institute of Technology - yelling false information about the vaccine and COVID-19, and recording video footage of people getting onto the bus to the Vodafone Events Centre, where the vaccines were administered. 

Photos showed protesters holding Voices for Freedom-branded signs sitting alongside the bus route. 

"You can say what you like and we'll support your right to say it, but if you're harassing people and getting in their face and being abusive, that doesn't sit with our values," said Harrison, who's getting a jab on Wednesday.

"As soon as we heard that we phoned them up and told them we're canning their advertising. The ad per se was fine… we have ads from political parties and we might not agree with what they have to say but we put them up - same thing with this. 

"But when we discussed the behaviour around the way they're delivering their message, we thought that doesn't align with us. Hence, we're gonna can it." 

Voices for Freedom's Facebook page was recently deleted for repeatedly spreading COVID-19 misinformation. The group is run by Alia Bland, Claire Deeks and Libby Jonson, who describe themselves as "three passionate kiwi mums intent on making sure our beautiful country remains a safe and free place for our families and friends".

They didn't respond to Newshub's request for comment. They have in the past said their claims are written in consultation with scientists, but have refused to name any. Deeks was formerly a candidate for political party Advance NZ, which teamed up with Billy Te Kahika's conspiracy-spreading Public Party to contest the 2020 election

The group's website says anyone "behaving aggressively, with violence, or unlawfully does not act with the authority of Voices for Freedom".

'They're not a legitimate part of the discussion'

Jacinta O'Reilly of Fight Against Conspiracy Theories (FACT) said Voices for Freedom's billboard campaign - which didn't mention COVID-19 or vaccines - was likely an attempt to appear legitimate. 

"They have a page on their website dealing with the free speech issue… but really the point is to make themselves part of the political landscape, rather than people with a health agenda," the former teacher told Newshub.

"But they do have a health agenda - they recommend that people don't wear masks, they provide a mask exemption form, they continue to spread misinformation about the vaccine and when they are corrected, they decline to update their communications to people. They're not a legitimate part of the discussion - they're people who distort the discussion for whatever their own ends are." 

Deeks has a background in food blogging and  is a 'platinum wellness advocate' with doTERRA, selling 'essential oils'. In May Newshub revealed a hidden page on the Voices for Freedom website talking up the alleged benefits of essential oils, which was quickly removed after Newshub asked about it. 

"It's not true in New Zealand, but it is certainly true in the US that the anti-vax movement is a very lucrative business to be in," said O'Reilly.

"If you check out… what bloggers and podcasters in the States can make and sell their channel for, it's in the millions. I would say that that appears very attractive to people. They would say they are worried about people's health, but that's a very debatable point because they don't seem to adjust any thinking in response to health information.

"There's enormous money in this area in the US. I think somebody sold their channel for $10 million recently." 

Another company which ran the billboards, LHD Media, could not be reached for comment.