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February 24th 2013 print

Steve Kates

If I may be allowed to speak freely

When the person charged with protecting free speech can't quite grasp what the concept is all about, the free and frank exchange of ideas is under serious threat. So, ultimately, is the future of Australia's robust democracy



I’d like to put in my own take on Human Rights Commissioner Elizabeth Broderick and her desiccated view of human rights and freedom of speech. This is from her opening statement during a recent appearance on ABC TV: “We are a vehicle for those people who are marginalised who ordinarily would never have a voice in this country to step up and have their say about things.”


What training do these people have? What is the basis for one’s appointment? What previous learning, scholarship, knowledge or study are required to sit in such exalted positions and wield such power? Most important, has Ms Broderick pondered the views of the great defenders of freedom: Spinoza, Voltaire, Mill. Listening to her maunderings was an insult to our intellectual history and to the history of free thought and free speech.

I have news for Ms Broderick. Freedom of speech is not about protecting the “marginalised”, it is about protecting everyone. If the example she gave in that same interview is the best she can do – focusing on the ability of the elderly to find a voice – well that must take quite some bravery. Who knew that the elderly were not permitted to speak up and say what they pleased. Good to know that she and her kind are so on-the-job in handling this no doubt very difficult problem. There must be a mountain of opposition to their efforts.

But now that the problem of free speech amongst the elderly has been resolved, how about dealing with some other issues, such as, perhaps, the attempts by the present government to limit free expression through the media? Or about some of the vile and repulsive statements emanating from some of our new Australian minorities? Or defending the ability of journalists to make observations about the manner in which government grants are distributed to those who might not have been the actual intended recipients, as originally conceived?

That, I fear, would be a bit trickier. It would actually require someone to have a philosophical position about freedom of speech and not some vague ambition to ensure that the marginalised, whoever they may be, are encouraged and enabled to speak out.

But since she got into this and did give us this one example of the elderly, why does she not give us others? Who are these marginalised who are unable to speak out? What is it they wish to say that cannot be said? Why does the HRC not publish these things on their behalf so that we can all see the kinds of statements of which we are being deprived. Let’s get these suppressed statements on the record, the ones it is now impossible for these people to make.

She mentioned a European politician who had been given a visa and allowed to speak as a purported demonstration of just how open a society we are. Well, whoever it is must be saying some very shocking things since she has used this person as an example of just how widely her brief is allowed to run. But if she is so keen to ensure that such speech is given an airing when others are trying to prevent that speech from being heard – which is what freedom of speech is about – then why does the HRC not publish this person’s views and put them up on the HRC website? Do it for everyone whose freedom of speech is under threat and not just this European visitor. Identify all of those suppressed views and publish them yourself. Then what revenge we would have on the people who are trying to stop their statements from being publicly made because now rather than stopping them, they will have caused those views to have a public platform. That would fix them.

Instead, I fear, the aim even of our Human Rights Commission is merely to stop non-politically-correct statements from entering public debate. I may be wrong about this – I hope I am wrong about this – but that is how it often looks. There is a standard leftist position on everything, including what one is permitted to say, and those who make statements outside those permitted bounds are likely to have their right to free speech cut out from under them, with the HRC the leader of the pack. Freedom of speech to the left means freedom to make particular statements that are consistent with the views of the left. Everything else, so far as they are concerned, should be forbidden.

Free speech is about open debate about every single political issue. I agree that personal statements, individual to individual, can be a danger to social cohesion and may therefore in certain circumstances be unacceptable. There may well be a need to have limits on such personal remarks where they are made merely to wound someone else. These kinds of limitations should be very carefully identified and the social utility of limiting this kind of free speech should be broadly discussed and consensus of some kind reached. It should only be personal statements, those directed at individuals, and there should be no ambiguity about what is illegal since the law should be very precise about such matters. I am not fully convinced of this but there is certainly a case to be made.

But that is not what we are talking about. We are here talking about the right to discuss politically charged issues in a public space, issues that often are part of our parliamentary debates, and these should be as open to free a discussion as it is possible to have. That is what freedom of speech means and absolutely nothing else will do.

 

Steve Kates teaches economics at RMIT University. His most recent book is Free Market Economics: an Introduction for the General Reader