First they came for the racists

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.

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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.

Nicola Wright is a writer at LibertyWorks. This article was also published in The Spectator Australia on 28 Sept 16.

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Nicola Wright

Nicola is passionate about liberty and human flourishing and has an interest in free speech advocacy, and resisting the 'nanny state'. She has had contributions in The Spectator Australia, Online Opinion, Spiked Online and Quillette, and is Managing Editor at LibertyWorks.
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34 Comments on "First they came for the racists"

  1. And we were all the better for it. The end

  2. “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”

  3. The people who scream racist all the time are usually the racists.


  4. Original quote:First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
    Because I was not a Socialist.

    Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
    Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

    Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
    Because I was not a Jew.

    Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

  5. First they came for the racists. And I said “Serves you right.”

  6. I may not agree with bolt, but I will defend his right to lie about people not being aboriginal.

  7. and lets see how you feel when you live under sharia law dickheads

  8. People should have the right to express racist beliefs. Then we know who they are.

  9. But the racists, misogynists and homophobes DO have the right to express an opinion. But so do we. We are allowed to express our opinion that such views are wrong. The fact that we do so, does not mean their right of free speech is being repressed. Or yours.

  10. 18c is an infringement on our free speech & must be rejected, we need to stop being cowardly & stand up for free speech or our children will continue to be oppressed.

    • Name a single case of 18C actually repressing free speech (and don’t say Bolt, because that was based on grotesque factual inaccuracies, which meant he couldn’t avail himself of one of the numerous exemptions granted in the bill’s 18D section). Don’t get me wrong, I’m completely opposed to this ‘stopping offensive speech’ nonsense, but 18C is not the monstrous censor it’s critics like to paint it as.

    • The Bill Leak Cartoon?

    • Heather Beattie-Davey he did not reply that one did he

  11. I find it strange how the media is now getting hot under the collar about Section 18C when for years, they have been responsible for feeding Australians news that has been sanitised to the extent of beeing worthless PC crap for fear of offending every minority group in existence.

  12. Just remember the RIGHTS MANTRA, don’t do the crime and you wont do the time!

  13. I do not mind people saying their beliefs, what I really mind is people who are using the those beliefs as excuses to try and oppress others. Ignore facts (and outright lie), creating problems for others and then try and hide behind free speech (especially when they scream when people call them racist/bigoted etc..)

  14. I love LibertyWorks posts. Always gives me a good laugh.

  15. It’s awkward to defend the free speech of racists, because most people interpret that as an endorsement of the stupid things they’re saying instead of a defence of free speech which it actually is. Even people with the absolute worst opinions should be able to share in (what should be, in Australia) our collective legal right as individuals to freedom of speech without fear of government interference. Instead of suing racists, just use your own free speech against them by (figuratively and/or literally) calling them dickheads.

  16. People should have the right to believe and say whatever they want as long as they are not directly inciting violence. Regardless of how much we may disagree with that. No law should ever be made to prevent that. Even religion should have the right to their bs without fear of laws being brought against them.

  17. Finally, something from LibertyWorks that I could agree with – if it applied in the real world. All the arguments are valid and have been for centuries, but only if you assume an equal right of reply.

    Unfortunately this is not the case. We have a society where more than at any time in human history, it is now possible for large vested interests to monopolise the content of public discussion and manipulate the informtion available to people for decision making. There is NO effective right of reply to the mainstream commercial media since they pretty much refuse to publish any opposing point of view, apart cases where they put a lot of effort into mis-representing those opposing points of view and maintaining a continuous stream of mis-information against anything they do not consider to be in their own commercial interest.

    They claim the right to freedom of speech, when what they are actually claiming is the right to suppress opposing points of view. This is, of course, extremely dishonest, and it is the reason why it is necessary to maintain some balance in the public discussion by placing some controls on their more damaging forms of misinformation. Either that, or if there is a real interest in free speech, force them to routinely publish both sides of every issue with equal prominence and treatment.

    • Yes, that’s something that should concern everyone, especially those that work hard and save to provide a better life for themselves and their family. Thanks for bringing this to our attention.

  18. Who defines racism tho

  19. Political correctness is in its death throws. Soon we all will be able to speak our minds without fear or favor.

  20. Isn’t this the sort of thing schools are supposed to teach?

  21. Well they better start building more prisons cause it won’t shut me up

  22. 18C is great if your a coward, if you see someone being racially vilified defend them argue against the racist stop being cowards.

  23. change this idiot government then we can change the 18c law

  24. I’m okay with this

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