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Stop hiding behind legislation and allow speech to flow freely

19 July 2014 283 views One Comment

AS many Australians, including federal Attorney-General George Brandis, are now fully starting to realise, protecting free speech and freedom of expression is an uphill struggle that needs to be fought over and over again.

These days in this country, as in much of the West, fewer and fewer people actually believe in freedom of speech. They may believe in freedom of speech for themselves, but they tend not to believe in freedom of speech and expression of opinion that contravenes their own deeply held beliefs, be they religious, political, racial or sexual.

It requires considerable courage to defend the rights of individuals and groups to promulgate ideas, no matter how unpopular they are and how hurtful to other people’s feelings.

But if we are committed to critical inquiry, it is crucial to protect the speech of those whose ideas and opinions we, or others, regard as vicious, hurtful, cruel, misguided, bigoted or just plain wrong. This is because the long-term consequences of suppression of such utterances are far worse than the “hurt they may inflict.

The reality is that, if one form of “offensive speech is banned, the way is open to ban or suppress ­another.

Moreover, even though advocates of anti-racial discrimination and other similar legislation are almost always well intentioned, as far as freedom of speech and free expression are concerned, the consequences of such legislative prohibitions are disastrous to liberal democracy. That is why I oppose such legislation.

It would be foolish to deny that cruel words — especially of a ­racial, sexual or religious nature — can emotionally wound those at whom they are directed.

But while this must be accepted, it is important to understand the disturbing implication of an increasing tendency to blur the distinction between words and physical violence, and instead to argue that hurtful words and ideas are actually a form of violence.

Thus “offensive words are categorised as an assault — as in the telling phrase “assaultive speech. An integrally connecting notion, which is again gaining prominence, is that the utterance of such words and ideas should be proscribed and the perpetrators of such hurtful or offensive speech punished.

But such advocates of suppression, from the Left and from the Right, fail to understand that, except as a metaphor, words are not weapons and that, in terms of free speech, it is crucial to maintain the distinction.

Increasingly in Western societies, including Australia, well-meaning legislators and citizens wish to stop others causing pain and offence with their “hurtful words and ideas. But as the great Canadian-born, American Jewish writer Saul Bellow put it: “Everyone knows there is no fineness of accuracy of suppression. If you hold one thing down, you hold down the adjoining.

Let us not beat about the bush. Much expression of opinion, including satire, can be deeply ­insulting and offensive to many people, to whom it can undoubtedly cause emotional hurt and ­suffering.

As liberal-democrats we need to admit this truth and yet argue that this is the price we must pay for our freedom of expression. In any functioning democracy, people do not have a right not to be ­offended. Moreover, they do not have a right to seek punishing vengeance for the emotional hurt, anger and pain caused by another’s words.

The truth is that without freedom to offend, freedom of expression ceases to exist.

Rather than regulating, obstructing or banning from speech those individuals and groups who promulgate unpopular ideas, what we should be doing is encouraging widespread discussion, examination and debate so that those sometimes disturbing ideas can be criticised and, if necessary, repudiated. Any attempt to exercise political control over ideas and the expression of belief is ultimately self-defeating, as is any suppression of speech and criticism no matter how ill-informed those ideas may be. That is why all citizens should be granted an entitlement to speak, as long as they do not commit or cause actual physical violence.

As it happens, I’m not a strong supporter of our defamation laws either.

In an age of increasing state and legislative regulation and control, those who passionately believe in free speech and in the unfettered flow of opinions and ideas should be doing whatever is necessary to ensure that criticism, inquiry and utterance on any topic, however controversial, using speech-forms no matter how unpopular, is neither undermined nor impeded.

Ross Fitzgerald is emeritus professor of history and politics at Griffith University. His memoir ‘My Name is Ross: An Alcoholic’s Journey’ is available as an e-book.

The Weekend Australian, July 19-20, 2014, Inquirer, p 24

One Comment »

  • Laurence W Maher said:

    Why no “diversity” of opinion?

    Congratulations to Ross Fitzgerald (“Allow speech to flow freely”, 19-20/7) for keeping up the fight for repeal of s 18C of the Commonwealth Racial Discrimination Act 1975.

    By conferring privileged protection for hurt or outraged feelings in the public discussion of religious, political, racial or sexual controversies, s 18C and corresponding State laws operate to enforce conformity. The inhibition of debate about religion is especially egregious. The proposition advanced by a recent Australian Prime Minister (and repeated by other commentators since) that religious beliefs must never be denigrated ignores the secular nature of the Australian polity which is given recognition in s 116 of the Australian Constitution. Was Chief Justice Latham of the High Court of Australia wrong when he said in 1943, “What is religion to one is superstition to another. Some religions are regarded as morally evil by adherents of other creeds” and that s 116 “proclaims not only the principle of toleration of all religions, but also the principle of toleration of absence of religion”?

    Dissent is supposed to be integral to a free and open society. It is thus more than a little curious that a word search for “dissent” on the Australian Human Rights Commission web site yields almost no results. One striking irony of the s 18C controversy is that the the word “diversity” is used
    incessantly in the long list of soothing and generally impenetrable abstractions invoked in aid of a multicultural Australia. What is never explained is why “diversity of opinion” is discriminated against.

    Laurence W Maher, Melbourne, Vic
    July 21, 2014

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