Free speech? Shut up and drink your hemlock!

When Socrates was tried and executed by his fellow Athenians, his speech was found to be outside the acceptable realm tolerated by his polis’ democracy. He was found guilty of heresy. While the Athenians had significant freedom of speech, it was not absolute, it was freedom both granted and taken away by the city state. After losing the Peloponnesian war, the Athenians searched for someone or something to blame. Socrates challenging of cultural norms through socratic questioning was deemed unacceptable and as a result Socrates was executed by being required to drink hemlock. 

Chris Berg explains in the first chapter of his book, In Defence of Freedom of Speech” the difference between freedom of speech that is granted by the State (such as in Ancient Athens) and freedom of speech that is a right (Such as in Ancient Rome). The difference is significant, in Ancient Athens freedom of speech was only permissible where it was sanctioned by the Athenian democracy. In theory at least, the situation in Rome was different. Freedom of speech was not something to be taken away by the Roman Senate it was a right of the individual. It wasn’t a gift bestowed on the individual by the Senate, it was a right.

We now live in age of rights, so much so, that the term has lost much of its meaning. However, in our society, free speech is generally assumed to be right, not a gift by given to us by a benevolent state. Whether or not this is legally true, is not the point. Most Australians assume their right to free speech is guaranteed by law, in the same way Americans are guaranteed free speech by the First Amendment under their constitution.

I reflected on this when I received a reply from an ALP Senator in response to a petition I signed supporting Bob Day’s proposed private member’s bill aimed at amending 18c. The response I received included this argument: “Labor is a staunch supporter of free speech – but free speech is not and never could be absolute. Freedom of speech is a value that, like many democratic values, must always be counterbalanced against competing values.  In Australia, as in all western democracies, there are numerous ways in which freedom of speech has always been constrained to benefit our community.” 

This is an increasingly common argument, and notice that free speech is not a right, but a value. A value that can be ignored or pushed aside. To the extent that Labor, the Greens and many in the Coalition support free speech at all, it’s really state sanctioned speech – you as an individual don’t have a right to speech, it’s a democratic value that our rulers support when it doesn’t conflict with some other value they consider more important, such as social cohesion. 

Free speech that’s really state sanctioned speech is no free speech at all. When those advocating restrictions on free speech say, ‘that they support free speech but…’ we should challenge them on the use of the term free speech. They have appropriated the term for their own purpose and distorted its meaning beyond recognition. They have a right to argue against free speech, or for restricted speech, many have before them, but they have no right to call it free speech. The only people who should use that term are those willing to go the full Voltaire.

As Brendan O’Neill recently pointed out, hate speech laws are a return to blasphemy laws. Except now instead of offending Christ, it’s now a crime to offend minorities. We abolished blasphemy laws because society deemed them to be out dated and a violation of both free speech and of freedom of religion. Did blasphemy suddenly because inoffensive to millions of christians? No it didn’t, but we did then, as we should now, accept the fact that people have the right to be offensive. The way to handle these issues is through discussion and debate, not courtrooms, human rights investigations or secret trials. 

Advocates for the Human Rights Commission will say that it helps mediate between parties and prevents these cases from going to court. Socrates too was given the chance to apologise. He could have saved his own life, but the stubborn old man refused and instead chose the hemlock. In Australia offensive people only face the choice betweenaplogising and begging for mercy, or two face ruinous litigation. I doubt I would have Socrates’ bravery. 

Senator David Leyonhjelm recently highlighted with his complaint under 18c — there is little or no protection for white males or christiansagainst offense. The State is selective in its control. Next time someone says something offensive about Christianity or against white males you won’t find any human right commissioners calling for complaints as recently occurred in relation to one of Bill Leaks’ cartoons. 

The answer to this hypocrisy is not to pulp every edition of the Guardian or have the police investigate the Twitterati, but to recognisethat individuals have a right to free speech. This includes the right to be offensive. George Brandis was right when he said, “People have a right to be a bigot.” Even those who for the Guardian or are on Twitter. 

Justin Campbell is on the executive committee of LibertyWorks. His article first appeared in The Spectator Australia on 26 Aug 16.

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24 Comments on "Free speech? Shut up and drink your hemlock!"

  1. Free Speech, OK, I’m going to hold you all to this, lol. You delete or block me, You lose, lol. you ready?

  2. The Libertarian Hypocrisy Test

    That’s where the Libertarian Hypocrisy Test comes in. Let’s say we have a libertarian friend, and we want to know whether or not he’s hypocritical about his beliefs. How would we go about conducting such a test? The best way is to use the tenets of his philosophy to draw up a series of questions to explore his belief system.

  3. Ayn Rand, Rand Paul and Paul Ryan walk into a bar. The bartender serves them tainted alcohol because there are no regulations. They die.
    —Miss O’Kistic[1]
    “”Libertarians secretly worry that ultimately someone will figure out that the whole of their political philosophy boils down to “get off my property”. News flash: This is not really a big secret to the rest of us.
    —John Scalzi[2]
    Libertarianism is, at its simplest, the antonym of authoritarianism.[3] The term has been around since the beginning of the 20th century or earlier and was primarily used for self-identification with anarcho-syndicalism and labor movements. In the USA, the term was adopted by the Foundation for Economic Education think tank in the 1950’s[4] to describe a political and social philosophy that advocates laissez-faire capitalism as a panacea for virtually everything. Non-libertarians view this as synonymous with oligarchic plutocracy after the fashion of the American Gilded Age, while the reality-based community tends to realize that one cannot just yank economic theories out of the air and magically expect them to work.
    This anti-government phenomenon is found primarily in the United States, likely due to Americans’ extensive experience with dysfunctional government, coupled with their unawareness of the existence of other countries. Historically, and almost everywhere other than America still today, the term has been associated with libertarian socialism and anarchism. The adoption of the libertarian label by advocates of free market economics is an ironic example of their tendency to take credit for other people’s ideas.

  4. Hidden and uncountable costs
    Strict interpretations of freedom to associate offer little incentive to remedy problems created by social stratification; in particular, the principle of “personal ownership” often leads to a blame-the-victim mentality (e.g. Rand’s use of the term “parasite” to describe those dependent on public services).
    In a strict libertarian world with no welfare programs, people with disabilities that rendered them unable to work or unemployable who did not have families or a benefactor willing to support them financially would essentially be doomed to starve to death, become a prostitute, or turn to theft and drug dealing for survival. As automation, globalization and artificial intelligence continue to make more people unemployable and labor less valuable, entire swaths of the population will essentially have to choose between death and debt slavery. Unemployed parents would not be able to keep their children and would have to allow wealthy people to e̶n̶s̶l̶a̶v̶e̶ adopt them if they couldn’t make a livable wage.
    No matter how many whine about it, governmental regulation often corrects problems that an unregulated free market could not. One example is health care regulations, such as enforcing credentialing for physicians to ensure they’re not some self-certified nut in a lab coat; making sure pharmaceuticals have the ingredients they say they do and are relatively safe, AND that they work as intended; and ERs being required to treat people regardless of their ability to pay. Another is related to public health: how would consumers be able to determine which food vendors would be safe (and therefore, want to exchange capital with) in a festival experiencing bacterial contamination?[20] And why should businesses take on the risk of preventing epidemics?[21] Many libertarians don’t have a coherent answer for what to do to correct these problems in a free market; they simply insist that “competition” will solve the problems, or at least make them inconsequential.
    To many libertarians, environmental damage is just a cost of doing business.[22][23] Regulations to stop or correct for negative externalities caused by private companies are seen as “anti-business.” Environmentalists are the new socialists.[24] Apparently, not even disastrous economic catastrophes that affect the lives of millions are reason enough to hold the corporations that caused them accountable. For example, Rand Paul (a professed ardent libertarian) criticized government regulation and enforcement to clean up the millions of gallons of oil spilled into the Gulf of Mexico as an un-American boot heel on the throat of British Petroleum.[25]
    Like many other political positions, libertarianism is also subject to fundamentalist thinking. In libertarianism this can lead to both figurative and literal arms races, as well as an attraction to fringe groups such as the tax protester movement, and calling for the dismantling of central banks and a resumption of the gold standard.

  5. Another esteemed Nabour high graduate.

  6. Banning you from this page in no way a violation of your free speech; taking you to court for being offensive would be. Free speech protects you from government coercion, it’s not an ultimate right to shit post on people’s facebook page.

  7. I find it interesting that supporters of 18C always come up with the same redundant, weak and pathetic arguments in it’s defence. Including this Labor (read Socialist) Senator.
    It is supposed to be that we dictate to the Government and the Government fears the people- not the other way around.
    I find it interesting that the weakest and consequently the most totalitarian members of society always flock to the regressive left. The ones who brought this in in the first place to censor us

  8. The right to say or speak whatever you want needs to to be respected. However when what you say or right harms others needs to be respected too.

    I could say Mr Smith is a pedophile transsexual Satan worshipper. When Mr Smith is a respected member of the community he should be able to defend himself against my sayings to put up or shut up.

    This is the heart of free speech, put up or shut up.

  9. Free speech should be protected like America has protected it, get over it you snow flake SJW’s triggered bunch, harden the phuk up and get over it, we should be able to say what ever we want!!! as you can in America as long as you are within the law.

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