Pro-life activists claim free speech is under attack

Stuff 8 September 2017
Family First Comment: It’s highly ironic that a pro-“choice” group wants to deny the choice of students to support another club 😬

Pro-life activists in New Zealand are having a rough month. Last week, at the University of Auckland, the student association voted 1599 to 1021 to cut ties with campus group ProLife Auckland. And in late August, Family First announced it was resorting to court action, after the Charities Register board decided it didn’t qualify as a “charity” under the Charities Act, de-registering the group – for a second time.

Both organisations are appealing these decisions. ProLife Auckland is waiting to hear whether the referendum question – “Should AUSA disaffiliate the Pro Life Club and ban any clubs with similar ideology from affiliating in the future?” – was unconstitutional, says co-director Jelena Middleton. Family First national director Bob McCoskrie says its High Court appeal will challenge the Charities Board’s findings “that Family First has no public benefits, that its views are controversial, and that we shouldn’t have charitable status”.

Regardless of what grounds the appeals are based on, the two pro-life groups have framed their plights as battles for freedom of expression, arguing their right to share their pro-life viewpoint is under threat.

To be clear, says Will Matthews, president of the Auckland University Students Association (AUSA), ProLife Auckland has lost none of the rights and privileges it enjoyed as an affiliated group. The group can still book rooms at the university, still apply for funding, still set up booths on campus. “All that is lost is its formal relationship with the AUSA,” says Matthews.

But the symbolism of that loss is an “attack on ideology”, says Middleton. “It means our views aren’t welcome within the AUSA. That’s a restriction of freedom of speech even if it isn’t an outright removal of freedom of speech itself.” Following the referendum, ProLife Auckland received a message from Family First, offering legal advice, counsel and, potentially, funding to pursue this further, says McCoskrie.

Family First, too, are using freedom of expression rhetoric. “If we were deregistered, we would lose some privileges,” says McCoskrie. “But I’m fighting this on a greater principle on freedom of speech and the danger when the state, or a tertiary institution, determines what is acceptable or not acceptable to say or believe.”

In response, Charities Registration Board chair Roger Holmes Miller says: “Family First has the freedom to continue to communicate its views and influence policy and legislation but the independent Charities Registration Board has found that Family First’s pursuit of those activities do not qualify as being for the public benefit in a charitable sense.”
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