“As with all rights within tikanga Māori, the right to speak comes with corresponding obligations. There is, therefore, no abstract or absolute ‘right to offend’.” Dr Carwyn Jones (Photo: RNZ, Chevron Hassett)

The western liberal concept of freedom of speech isn’t necessarily the best or only way to create an environment that promotes the free exchange of ideas and healthy debate. As Carwyn Jones argues here, tikanga Māori offers a more nuanced, less black and white way of thinking about the rights and obligations of free speech.


The ability to freely express ideas, to communicate different points of view, and to engage in robust and constructive debate is important to all of us.

Issues of free expression have been in the news recently, ranging from the protests at universities across the US, to the legislation to ban gang patches here in Aotearoa. And just last week, Victoria University of Wellington, an institution with which I’m affiliated, announced that it’s had to rethink a proposed panel on freedom of speech after a backlash from within the university, from those concerned that the event could become a platform for hate speech. That’s prompted accusations from free speech absolutists about the dangers of such “suppression”.

So often these discussions are framed as though the western liberal concept of freedom of speech is the best or only way to create an environment that promotes a free exchange of ideas and healthy debate. The only question then is where to draw the line in terms of hate speech or other kinds of regulated speech.

But there are other, perhaps more nuanced, less black and white ways of thinking about the rights and obligations of free speech.

Te ao Māori has always placed a high value on speech, and tikanga provides an effective framework for supporting challenging discussion, providing space for dissent and disagreement, and for developing understanding through the exchange of ideas.

The exchange of ideas is at the heart of Māori institutions of higher learning, whare wānanga. Historically, whare wānanga were places of specialised learning and teaching, transmitting spiritual, esoteric, and practical knowledge from skilled experts to students.

The modern wānanga — Te Wānanga o Aotearoa, Te Whare Wānanga o Awanuiārangi, and Te Wānanga o Raukawa, where I teach — all draw on the concept of the historical whare wānanga. Nepia Mahuika has noted the way in which, in descriptions of these institutions of higher learning, “wānanga” is used as “both noun and verb, a place for learning and debate, and an act or practice to recite higher and sacred knowledge”.

As a practice, “wānanga” describes active discussion and the exchange of ideas. Participants contribute to developing collective understanding by sharing their own thinking and perspectives. The process requires a willingness to share honestly and with the good faith objective of contributing to better understanding. But it doesn’t require everyone to agree — though, of course, enhancing shared understanding can often provide a very useful platform for reaching agreement.

The importance of robust debate comes from Māori cosmogeny. The kōrero relating to the separation of Ranginui and Papatūānuku tells of the discussion that took place between the atua. The decision to separate their parents was made only after intense debate. Dissenting voices were heard. Tāwhirimātea remained opposed to separating his parents. That dissent and opposition is an important part of the story of how the universe shifts from darkness into the world of light.

Māori scholars such as Te Wharehuia Milroy and Hirini Melbourne have suggested that it’s this discussion which introduces the element of discourse, the practice of engaging with opposing ideas, that provides the foundation for whaikōrero (the speechmaking which takes place as part of the pōwhiri). The discussion which takes place between Māui-tikitiki-a-Taranga and Hine-nui-te-pō about the mortality of humankind has also been pointed to as a model of whaikōrero.

In his book, Whaikōrero: The world of Māori oratory, Poia Rewi notes that Te Wharehuia Milroy defined whaikōrero as “a particular kind of language use, for example, during rituals of encounter, when welcoming visitors, at times of bereavement, or on other occasions when two or more autonomous entities gather together. Apart from the acknowledgements exchanged, the real essence of whaikōrero is the fact that a theme is expressed and maintained by follow-up and discussion, becoming a common topic for various speakers.”

Whaikōrero can, therefore, be understood as a practice that encourages distinct groups to genuinely engage with the ideas presented to one another.

The practice of whaikōrero is also closely associated with mana — the mana of the speaker, the mana of the group that the speaker represents, the mana of the group with whom they’re engaging, and the mana of the kaupapa.

This reflects not only the high value placed on oratory but, perhaps more significantly, the recognition of the importance of speech as a means of strengthening relationships, developing ideas, and contributing to decision-making.

On the marae, discussion takes place according to the protocols set by the home people. As with all rights within tikanga Māori, the right to speak comes with corresponding obligations. There is, therefore, no abstract or absolute “right to offend”.

But that doesn’t prevent robust debate taking place. Anyone who saw the pōwhiri at Te Matatini in 2023 would have seen the evidence of that. During that pōwhiri, speakers from Ngāti Whātua o Ōrākei and Waikato engaged in a very frank exchange of views about mana whenua, which had been the subject of recent litigation involving both iwi.

A speaker should expect consequences if they fail to respect relationships and the mana of the kaupapa and of all involved. The whakataukī, “He tao rākau e taea te karo; he tao kōrero, e kore e taea te karo. The taiaha can be parried, but words go straight to the heart,” is a reminder to take care with how we speak to each other and what we say. It’s striking that this whakataukī conveys the opposite meaning to the Pākehā rhyme: “Sticks and stones may break my bones. But words shall never hurt me.”

So, how might a tikanga Māori-based approach be applied — for instance, in the case of a university seeking to host a discussion on issues related to freedom of speech?

For a start, the mana of the university community would need to be considered. The first question that should be asked is whether the university community — which we might think of in this instance as like the hau kāinga, the home people, of the host institution — considers that there is an issue that needs attention. Is there a discussion that needs to be had? Is there some new thinking that needs to be grappled with?

The hau kāinga can’t be compelled to discuss any particular kaupapa. Time, energy and intellectual resources should be directed at matters that the hau kāinga determine as priorities. Of course, this doesn’t stop others hosting their own conversations about whatever kaupapa they wish to discuss or deem important.

If the university community determines that this is an important kaupapa to discuss, then we can also look to tikanga to determine how to reflect the mana of the kaupapa and of the university.

Recognising the mana of the kaupapa requires giving careful thought to who can best contribute to the understanding of that kaupapa. In the case of a kaupapa such as freedom of speech and the university, you’d therefore seek to ensure the participation of those most affected by threats and hate speech intended to silence them — for example, women, Māori, people from the rainbow community. It does not serve the mana of the kaupapa to invite speakers who denigrate those communities.

The university’s mana is grounded in scholarly excellence and research-led teaching, and its mana is degraded by presenting speakers who simply repeat tired old ideological arguments as if they are contributing to a constructive discussion. Hosting a panel in which some speakers are willing to engage in a good faith, evidence-based discussion, and others are not, doesn’t help people to be discerning in evaluating argument, analysis, and research. This does not reflect the mana of the kaupapa or the university.

And finally, a tikanga-based approach would frame this conversation as a wānanga, a discussion in which participants are contributing to increasing collective understanding.

Dialogue, debate, disagreement, challenge and contestation have always been important in te ao Māori, and tikanga provides a framework that protects and supports the free exchange of ideas.

That framework is built around important principles such as mana, whanaungatanga, manaakitanga, utu, and tapu and noa. These principles encourage active participation in robust discussion by ensuring that everyone is aware of the impact that kōrero can have on mana and relationships.

This provides a different way of thinking about free speech than simply an individual right. Rather, it suggests a focus on the obligations to the community that are always inherently bound up with the exercise of rights in the Māori legal order.

Understanding those rights and obligations together supports the kind of expansive and inclusive conversations that are foundational to teaching and learning, development of knowledge, and constructive public debate.

Dr Carwyn Jones (Ngāti Kahungunu) is Pūkenga Matua (Lead Academic) of Ahunga Tikanga (Māori Laws and Philosophy) at Te Wānanga o Raukawa, and Honorary Adjunct Professor, Te Kawa a Māui (School of Māori Studies) at Te Herenga Waka Victoria University of Wellington.

© E-Tangata, 2024

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