In 2018, Robert Jones wrote a piece he argued was ‘satire’, in which called for an annual ‘Māori Gratitude Day’. Filmmaker and activist Renae Maihi responded with a petition to have him stripped of his knighthood. Jones is suing her for defamation.
You’d be forgiven for thinking it was Sir Bob Jones being sued for defamation in the Wellington High Court this week; that his many decades as one of New Zealand’s preeminent polemicists had prompted an injured party to take legal action.
In fact it is he, knight of the realm and proponent of free speech, who is suing filmmaker Renae Maihi for defamation after she presented a petition to parliament signed by more than 80,000 people, asking to strip Jones of his knighthood after he penned a column for the NBR calling for Waitangi Day to be renamed Māori Gratitude Day. He says she has defamed him by characterising him as a racist.
Jones isn’t seeking damages, only legal costs and the declaration that Maihi defamed him.
Maihi’s claims are likely to in part be defended by the “honestly held opinion” argument, which is a common defence against defamation. Another defence is truth, and it seems inevitable that parts of Jones’s writing over the years will also be used as evidence.
Such as his article for a 1988 issue of North & South which included the following paragraphs:
“What sort of people abandon literally thousands of their children to live Calcutta-style in the streets, huddled together in shop doorways, living off scraps and charity?”
“What sort of people turn the other cheek when literally thousands of their young men form into gangs to rape and murder and pillage and generally declare war on society.”
“An objective outsider assessing the state of affairs in this country would be excused for quickly concluding that Maoris are genetically an inferior race.”
“If Maoris are to be guaranteed parliamentary seats, then why not Samoans? And for that matter why not left-handers, spectacle wearers and asylum inmates?”
Other nuggets of Bob Jones gold can be found here.
The case will be interesting for many reasons, but among them is the fact that racism doesn’t have a legal definition.
Section 61 of the Human Rights Act 1993 refers to “threatening, abusive or insulting” language which is “likely to excite hostility … on the ground of the colour, race, or ethnic or national origins”. On the other hand the NZ Bill of Rights Act 1990 states at that “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”.
The tension between free speech and hate speech has been a big feature of recent controversies, such as the 2018 visit from Canadian hate-niks Lauren Southern and Stefan Molyneux. Some observers have suggested that few of those who defended the alt-right pair’s freedom of expression have been conspicuous in their defence of Maihi.
The trial takes place at Wellington High Court 10 February to 21 February, 10am – 5pm in courtroom six.