Look at the comments on any article on Free Speech, in particular Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act, and you will find the inevitable:
‘If you’re not being racist you’ve got nothing to worry about’.
‘Just don’t be rude and offensive, simple!’
‘Typical, white men complaining about losing their right to be racist and bigoted.’
‘Listen to all the white people talking saying that racism isn’t a problem.’
And so on. What these comments reveal is a complete misunderstanding of the principles of free speech and why it is so important to a free and enlightened society.
One major misconception that is revealed time and time again is that standing up for free speech means supporting or agreeing with objectionable or bigoted opinions. The automatic response of some people when they hear arguments against laws that govern hate speech is that whoever is making those arguments is bigoted themselves. The accusation goes along the lines of ‘this person just wants to be able to express their hateful opinions without any repercussions’. Free speech advocates, however, are standing up for the freedom for everybody to speak freely without state sanction, including views that they themselves find abhorrent.
During the enlightenment, the concept of speech, free from government sanction or censure was considered one of the most important human freedoms and rights. This stance is illustrated by the oft-quoted saying “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”. Some people find this idea confusing. Why would you want people to be free to speak or write about objectionable, abhorrent opinions?
The answer may be found in the words of Justice Hugo Black “The freedoms of speech … must be accorded to the ideas we hate, or sooner or later they will be denied to the ideas we cherish.”
For many people it feels OK when people with racist or bigoted opinions are punished in a court of law, because it’s the ‘bad guys’ getting what they deserve. If a holocaust denier is refused entry to Australia to speak, that’s OK right? Because they have a poisoned opinion and we don’t want that here. How about an anti-vaccination speaker? Let’s keep them out too, think of the disinformation they’ll be spreading! Maybe a speaker critical of our asylum seeker policies should be banned, or a doctor from an offshore detention centre silenced. Suppression of free speech may seem acceptable when you those you disagree with are being silenced or punished, but one day you may find a viewpoint you agree with and support, has been smothered.
Once the general public have fully accepted the idea that certain kinds of speech are unlawful and punishable, then it becomes a simple matter of expanding the idea to include dissent from all forms of acceptable opinion. When, for example the laws restricting freedom of expression include words such as ‘likely to insult or cause offence’ then there really is no limit to how these laws can be applied to suppress speech and ideas, reliant as we are on the interpretation of the law by presiding judges. Offence and insult are subjective terms that cannot be measured or assessed except by the way they have made a person feel. Indeed, a slippery slope.
Restrictions on speech as they relate to causing offence are not limited to 18C. s474.17 of the Criminal Code Act makes it a criminal offence, punishable by a prison sentence, to make use of a carriage service to cause offence. That means of course using the internet to be offensive; a crime that many thousands of people are committing on a daily basis! Although people are not being prosecuted each week for causing offence online, the law does exist, waiting to be used the next time somebody with an offensive opinion has upset the wrong person.
Another common misconception is that restricting free speech protects people. By making it unlawful to offend or insult, it is assumed that ‘marginalised’ people will be somehow safe from hearing hurtful opinions. Punitive measures to stop people insulting or offending others don’t change how people think, only what they are willing to say. A friend recently said to me that she prefers racist or bigoted people to make their feelings known so she can more easily identify people she’d prefer to avoid. Restricting the expression of opinions, drives ideas down into the private sphere where they cannot be exposed and challenged. Bans and sanctions on certain types of speech do not serve us or protect us because they don’t allow us to hear, expose and then publically contest these views.
A third misconception is that robust public debate equals censorship of other people’s opinions; it does not. If somebody writes an article in order to contest another person’s point of view, it is not an attack on freedom of speech. Disagreement isn’t limiting free speech or preventing anybody from expressing their point of view. When somebody like Brendon O’Neill, an outspoken free speech advocate, writes an article critical of a certain viewpoint, he is often accused of being hypocritical about freedom of speech. Of course this is nonsense, what he is doing is exercising his free speech to contest opinion in the public sphere. Herein lies the beauty of unfettered freedom of speech in the political realm: everyone is entitled to express their viewpoint, using logic and persuasion, and may the best ideas win.
In the rough and tumble of public discourse, causing offence is almost inevitable. Challenging another person’s beliefs can sometimes be offensive to them, especially if they hold those views close to their hearts. But it is through this very act of challenging deeply held beliefs that we move forward as a society, leaving behind outdated ideas and embracing new modes of thinking. We must defend our right to speak freely, no matter whether it is likely to hurt somebody’s feelings. It may seem awful or callous to some to suggest that we all have a right to cause offence and that right must be protected. But think about it. Causing offence is subjective. Somebody, somewhere could potentially be offended by even the most benign of opinions, even yours. If causing somebody offence, even unintentionally, is the basis for prosecution under Section 18C and, more worryingly s474.17, then no opinion is safe.