At what cost do we defend free speech?

On two recent occasions I’ve actively supported the limitation of someone’s freedom of speech. I joined the campaign to shame advertisers on Alan Jones’ radio program to withdraw their support. And I rallied people on Twitter to lodge complaints against a pro-ana Facebook page.

Initially, neither action sat particularly comfortably with me. While I’m not libertarian, I’m not a fan of censorship either. I value my right to say pretty much whatever I want about whatever I choose. And I exercise that right on a regular basis.

But I’ve begun to wonder why most debate about freedom of expression pivots on an all-or-nothing basis? Why does the proscription of certain verbal behaviours always elicit cries of censorship rather than endorsement of protection? And why is it assumed that if we as a society insist that certain types of speech are unacceptable, we will revert overnight to a totalitarian state in which nobody has the freedom to say anything?

Surely there’s a balance between free and societally-acceptable speech? Shouldn’t this be the goal in a free and democratic nation: the right to speak, to be heard and to be protected from harm?

Why should the right to speak include the right to ridicule, humiliate, or offend? Or in the case of the pro-ana page, the right to promote self-harm?

Why is the libertarian ideal of unfettered free speech always proffered as defense against harmful language? Australians don’t actually have the same constitutional right to freedom of speech that Americans have. It is not spelt out in our constitution, although legal rulings have interpreted it to mean that Australians have a right to free political speech.

Even so, most public discourse in Australia operates as if we have, or should have, unfettered free speech.

We have defamation, racial vilification and cyber-bullying laws to protect people from the most harmful types of expression. These laws are legal manifestations of the boundaries considered particularly important by society; acceptability thresholds built on qualities that we value such as common decency, tolerance, respect and compassion.

There are regular instances of society’s willingness to patrol those boundaries, with recent notable examples including the community backlash against those who said they hoped a child would get laid at the Logies; that an alleged murder victim should have known better than to walk home drunk in the middle of the night; and that the Prime Minister’s father died in shame of her.

Clearly, the community sees a role for itself in policing free speech.

And why shouldn’t it? Isn’t it something that we do every day? Do we allow our teenage son the freedom to call his grandfather an old cunt? Do we respect the right of a team-mate to ridicule another’s mental health by calling them psycho? Do we celebrate democracy when our sister is called a slut for what she wears or our friend is told to hang himself because he’s gay?

No, we demand that free speech be exercised in a responsible manner.

Perhaps the notion of free speech is similar to that of a free market. It’s hardly a coincidence that both are celebrated libertarian ideals. While great in theory, a free market is Darwinian in nature – only the fittest, in terms of competitiveness, will survive. Those exercising their right to be competitive in an unfettered free market can be harmful to others – either through reduced wages and conditions, cutting corners on safety and quality considerations, or through price gouging or collusion when fierce competition produces monopolies or duopolies.

Because of this, governments put protections in place to prevent harm to the community from overzealous free market operations. Not only do we as society accept it, we demand such protection.

Perhaps we should look at unfettered free speech the same way: a potentially harmful ideal that needs protective mechanisms built in.

I’m not advocating more laws to provide this protection: more a broad public acceptance that free speech is not an unassailable right that must be defended at all costs. Political free speech is another matter altogether, and I agree it is one of democracy’s foundation stones.

However, despite what the libertarians say, Australia will not slip into a totalitarian regime if you tell your son to be polite to his grandfather, your team-mate that it’s cruel to mock mental health issues, or assertively explain that slut-shaming and bigotry are unacceptable.

Freedom of speech must go hand in hand with freedom from harm caused by speech.

I know this isn’t a clear-cut issue and I honestly don’t know where the boundaries are. There are times when I find profane language to be quite beautiful. There are other times when polite language can be utterly offensive.

Then again, it’s not really what is offensive or shocking that is the problem, in my view, but what is harmful. It would be a challenge nevertheless to draw a distinction between language that mocks or ridicules with that which denigrates or abuses.

For me, the measuring stick is nevertheless composed of the qualities that society values: common decency, tolerance, respect and compassion. Or perhaps more succinctly: by treating others as you would have your loved ones treated by them.

Author: Drag0nista

Political columnist at The New Daily | Editor of Despatches & AusVotes 2019 | Author of On Merit, a book on the Liberals' *women problem*. Former Liberal staffer and industry lobbyist. Studying the entrails of federal politics since 1989.

12 thoughts on “At what cost do we defend free speech?”

  1. Beautifully written and excellent post. I think we should, and clearly do, impose limits on free speech and behavior for what’s socially acceptable and you’ve got some great examples here. Campaigns, complaints, boycotts etc are all part of free speech too and part of how the community voices its disapproval when someone goes too far. And at some point, eventually, every extreme polarizing shock jock will go too far and the community will say Enough! All that is part of free speech.
    As you say in terms of legal application, where to draw the line is the difficult part. I think in Australia we have enough laws to cover us for hateful or irresponsible speech. Adding more doesn’t mean that overnight we’d wake up ins totalitarian state, but each new law does set new boundaries and this is what the ‘slippery slope’ argument is about. The law is always going to allow more bad behavior than we’d like – such as the son calling his grandfather an old cunt etc. You can’t and shouldn’t legislate against everything obviously. I think you show in this post very well that the social and the cultural do a good job of policing and punishing the bad behavior that can’t be punished by law.

  2. I’m always a little perplexed when incidents like the Alan Jones hoohaa are thought to have implications for freedom of speech. “Freedom of speech” does not and has never implied “freedom to say whatever you like without consequence”. Jones is generally free to say whatever he likes, and we are likewise free to lobby his sponsors to dump him when his speech shows him to be an insufferable dickhead. There is no problem, no paradox, no irony, no issue. In this land, you are pretty much free to say whatever you like, but what exactly it is that you choose to say, when you exercise this freedom, counts. It has weight and it has effects. So use this freedom with a little care… it’s not a free pass to unfettered bile.

    1. You’re right OhPointy, freedom of speech does not mean freedom from consequences of that speech. Perhaps we need to be reinforcing that point more often.

  3. On two recent occasions I’ve actively supported the limitation of someone’s freedom of speech. I joined the campaign to shame advertisers on Alan Jones’ radio program to withdraw their support.

    That’s not a limitation on someone’s freedom of speech. It’s an attempt to pull the power plug on someone’s PA. They can continue their “speech” as they please. Fewer people may hear them of course.

    I’m not a fan of censorship either. I value my right to say pretty much whatever I want about whatever I choose. And I exercise that right on a regular basis.

    I’m not a fan of it either You and I and everyone else ought to have wide scope to unload whatever is on our minds. Yet nobody has a right to an audience. Perhaps they will learn the art of acquiring and keeping audiences, but that’s a right to try and the result has no legal protection.

    One might also add that in practice, even in the narrower sense I’ve suggested, no jurisdiction allows unfettered speech. You can;t alk into an airport and start making jokes about bombs. Indeed, it seems you can’t even do that on twitter. You can’t publish child pr0n. You can’t defame people with immunity. You cannot disclose privileged information if it would violate privacy or a fiduciary duty. Industrial espionage and insider trading are not protected. You cannot defend yourself against attempt brinery of a public official by claiming free speech. Your speech in a court of law is also strictly controlled by the court and outside, sub judice also applies. In my classroom, I regulate speech ruthlessly to ensure classes take place and are effective.

    All societies limit speech — sometimes because this is essential to a greater public good. The debate about what speech should be unfettered is really about where the boundaries between the state and civil society should be drawn. What constraints on the individual are warranted and which would be oppressive or unreasonable? When there is a doubt, how much allowance should be made?

    We tend to follow the US in many respects and culturally, free speech fundamentalism is an article of faith over there. Yet it has never been so. The purpose of free speech is to permit the individual the scope to speak to their interests, to inform their fellows on matters of common interest and to make informed consent over one’s subjection to state rule a real thing. It’s not something that is axiomatic. It’s a practical consequence of notions of striking a balance between “the common good and the private good”.

    That’s why the slippery slope to totalitarianism is bogus, IMO.

  4. The current twitter protest/threatened boycott against 2gb fill the natural broad gaps that “light touch” legislative limitations on speech in Australia wisely leave: that is, room for public opprobrium to assemble and give itself voice according to the fashions and standards of the day, it is a natural social constraint on conduxt we see played out in the “micro” in smaller social, workplace or familial situations.

    The difference in the Jones case is that commerical organizations and media institutions have up till now faced a rather weak counterbalance, in the past letters to the editor sometimes countersigned by the good, the great (or the ..ahem merely famous) or particularly energetic march or petitionhave been largely dismissable. Up until now.

    The internet provides a two-way lens to concentrate and organize public focus and voice across geography and timezones upon public misconduct.

    I like to call this Internet enabled public protest against vile conduct a new DDOS: a Distributed Decrial of Slurs.

    Commercial and media institutions are being held to account for their conduct and are under the microscope.

    We are looking at them, but they are not looking at themselves.

  5. I just don’t accept that the jones issue is one of freedom of speech. Within the limits of defamation, he’s free to say whatever he likes to whomever he likes. But i am free to refuse to buy from his advertisers. His advertisers are free to withdraw their advertising from his programme. Macquarie radio are free to broadcast him or not as the case may be. The right to free speech does not mean free from consequences.

    1. Agreed, although I read today that Macquarie Radio claim that those who veto 2GB advertisers are censoring what 2GB listeners can hear. An interesting way of putting it…..

  6. You know those Chinese jade seals with the characters for your name that you can have made, and the red stamp-pad that goes with it? Get one and stamp it across this sentence of yours, because it says it all:

    “Freedom of speech must go hand in hand with freedom from harm caused by speech.”


  7. I love this post and the way Dragonista has respectfully considered the issue. My view:

    Those who raise freedom of speech in Australia, and criticise political correctness, do so not because they’ve mistaken us for a totalitarian regime. Their concern isn’t even about legal restrictions, which have so far been sensibly applied.

    While many complainants about censorship believe society has a right to set standards (through boycotts, news reporting and social media campaigns etc) around what views are socially acceptable, they are worried that:
    1. too many widely held, and reasonable views are being brought under this banner
    2. some universal social mores that are cited to justify restrictions simply are not real – at least not to the extent they would justify censorship.
    3. the main weapon of non-legal censorship is pejorative language that is designed to bully the guilty into silence. Whether you believe the shoe fits is not good enough – abuse is unbecoming of any civil human being, for any reason, including revenge.

    For example, the same sex marriage debate includes many people who are not motivated by hate or violence, but have legitimate concerns about the impact on society, or are even wavering. Perhaps you think they are wrong; but their views are calm and numerous – polls put support for same sex marriage at 50-60% which suggests four in ten Australians (roughly) are, according to the likes of Peter Van Onselen and any commentator on Sunrise, “rednecks” “hateful” and “bigots”. Similarly, the number of people – both men and women – who think that someone is a “misogynist” because they oppose abortion in some form, is substantial.

    Sure, they are not a majority perhaps, but they are large enough in number that their views should not be in the “dare not speak” category. Restriction on the basis of “social mores” should surely be restricted to far more universally condemned, clear cut views, such as sledging a person’s dead father, those who support sharia law, or forced child marriages.

    As for my point 2, there is a worry that many are pointing at loaded questionnaires in polls, or viewing a Twitter onslaught as somehow representative of a massive majority to justify the definition of a view as extreme enough for censorship. Destroy the Joint, a movement that I see much merit in, may have about 100K+ one-click Likes (including from those who oppose it, but “Like” it so they can participate on the comment feed), but only a few dozen members are active. The sponsors who received complaint letters have reported many thousands of duplicates (astroturfing).

    Similarly, the fact Julia Gillard’s anti-Abbott video has received a million YouTube views does not necessarily represent an overwhelming majority of Australians (and how many of those views were supporters rather than critics?), and thus provide grounds for Abbott to be objectively declared a woman hater whose views on any issue remotely female related should be silenced. While we can’t expect a scientifically bulletproof poll to be done on every issue, clearly other methods can be manipulated, or misinterpreted.

    Social mores censoring some extreme views are acceptable. Censorship of widely held views, astroturfing or abusing the bad guys are not.

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: