Chelsea Manning speaks at the digital media convention "re:publica" in Berlin, on May 2, 2018. (Photo by Tobias SCHWARZ / AFP/ Getty Images)

Chelsea Manning and the limits of free speech absolutism

The upcoming visit of the US intelligence whistleblower appears to have some on the right reassessing their commitment to free speech and open debate. How quickly they forget, writes Danyl McLauchlan.

Back in the very distant past of two weeks ago, amidst the clash and clamour of the Great Debate about freedom of speech provoked by the no-platforming of Don Brash at Massey University and the ominous-yet-farcical visit of two Canadian white nationalists, I wondered: who would the political right protest or no-platform? Whose freedom of speech would conservatives like to take away while loudly insisting they still believed in freedom of speech, but just not for a particular person who they happened to disagree with?

I couldn’t think of anyone. One person suggested ‘critics of Israel’. Maybe? Right-wing friends insisted they’d never deplatform anyone because ‘Freedom! The answer to hate speech is more speech! ‘To quote Voltaire…’ etc. But now National MP and former immigration minister Michael Woodhouse has answered my question by demanding that the government bar Chelsea Manning from entering the country next month.

Manning is a former US intelligence analyst who leaked a vast trove of confidential documents to WikiLeaks in 2010 (a more innocent time when WikiLeaks and its founder Julian Assange were seen as progressive forces for transparency and accountability and not deeply problematic Russian propaganda tools.) Manning was court-martialed and sentenced to 35 years in prison, but after serving seven had her sentence commuted by President Obama. Because of her criminal convictions Manning needs a waiver from the immigration minister to enter the country.

And according to this story by Stuff journalist Henry Cooke, the National Party objects to Manning’s visit because: “This is a convicted felon, sentenced to 35 years in jail, coming in here for money. She is wanting to be hailed as a hero for stealing military secrets and state secrets. She was convicted of very serious crimes.”

But convicted felons have been admitted to New Zealand in the past for speaking tours and performances. Jordan Belfort, the real-life ‘Wolf of Wall Street’, came in 2014; hence that weird end scene in Auckland in the Scorsese movie. Snoop Dogg – who readers may be shocked to learn has a number of drug convictions – got a waiver. You mostly want to keep people convicted of serious crimes out of your country, but the waiver system exists so that people exactly like Manning who have been found guilty under foreign criminal justice systems but obviously pose no risk to the New Zealand public can be admitted.

Manning’s defence at her trial was the standard whistleblower argument: that while breaking the law and revealing US state secrets about the bloody and incompetent fiasco that was the US military occupation of Iraq she acted in the public good, an argument history has largely validated – hence the presidential commutation of her sentence – and which almost all New Zealanders are likely to be sympathetic towards.

The real problem, I suspect, is that allowing Manning into the country would, according to Woodhouse “not enhance our relationship with the US”. This may or may not be true. National MPs and officials in the foreign affairs, defense and intelligence sectors of the public service fret about what the US might think in much the same way my elderly grandmother kept her house in Johnsonville spotless because she worried what the Queen might think. Even if is the case, palatability to the Trump administration should not define the limits of free speech in New Zealand.

National is also – like most right-wing political parties the world over – a party that somehow believes in limited government and individual rights while simultaneously championing the expansion and empowerment of state security agencies, maximising their ability to spy on their own citizens while minimising any attempts to hold them accountable. Manning’s actions and pro-transparency activism are a direct attack on the legitimacy of the modern surveillance state that National were so deeply committed to in government.

So Manning is an ideological enemy of the National Party. Two weeks ago it was, we were told, vitally important that we cherish free speech so that New Zealand could hear what Don Brash, Lauren Southern and Stefan Molyneux had to say. Now that they’re faced with the spectre of a high profile speaker with values critical of the defence and intelligence establishment, free speech is suddenly far less important to National. A cynic might say it was never about free speech at all, but the defence of racially charged speech under the guise of free speech.

But this also seems like a good time to point out to all the supporters of deplatforming and restricting public speech that the more power you give the state to determine who can and cannot speak, the more power you give to people like Michael Woodhouse, who was a minister just over a year ago, and may easily be one again.


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