Is there a concept more misrepresented or misunderstood in this country than that of free speech? Some weeks ago, The Australian reported:
Fifty years ago, Madeline Ward’s grandfather demonstrated against the Vietnam War on the front lawns of the University of Sydney’s famous quadrangle.
Now, the 21-year-old art history and English literature student potentially faces disciplinary action, perhaps resulting in suspension or expulsion, for a rowdy protest against a speech [by Bettina Arndt] on the campus last month.
“So we thought about complaining to the university to stop her from speaking, but we decided against that for a couple of reasons, mainly because I believe in the right to free speech, and also because I believe that ideas like Bettina Arndt’s need to be rigorously challenged in a public setting,” Ms Ward said.
“For us, the best way to do that was through a public protest. We wanted to present another, albeit passionate and loud, side of the argument. We’re not going to pass up an opportunity for a protest, especially when Sydney University is potentially the most politically active campus in Australia, and historically has been since the Vietnam War demos.”
Setting aside that student activists did indeed try to have Ms Arndt banned, it seems that ‘respecting freedom of speech’ is nothing more than conceding the theoretical right to speak while doing one’s frantic best to make sure those with whom you disagree are unable to be heard, even to setting off fire alarms and spitting on members of the would-be audience. The obvious question: did Ms Ward and her cohorts suggest to Bettina Arndt that her presentation should be conducted as a public debate during which she, Ward, could ‘rigorously challenge’ Bettina’s ideas?
How can you ‘rigorously challenge’ someone’s ideas, by which I infer presenting a convincing counter narrative, if you are not prepared to listen to those ideas in the first place?
At Sydney University, the ‘other side’ was certainly expressed passionately and loudly, but it was entirely bereft of argument. The online version of The Australian‘s story is headlined “Free speech is my right too”. Indeed it is and no less than the Australian flagship of Rupert Murdoch, that ogre of the Left’s imagination, has championed that right, even to the extent of publishing such specious nonsense as this:
“Protest is a fundamental part of democracy,” [Ward] added. “We have a right to protest. You might not agree with the tactics of protest, but if you support free speech, by virtue of that you have to support the right to protest.”
Ironic, eh? But a concept as subtle as irony is hardly something we can expect Ms Ward or her confreres to appreciate. Perhaps we should stop talking about ‘freedom of speech’ and instead insist on a ‘right to be heard’? To be fair, what can you expect from students when their academic mentors set such examples of intolerance and, on a good day, intellectual mediocrity?
Or consider Peter Van Onselen, who accuses conservatives of hypocrisy for rigorously defending the concept of free speech while ridiculing those who espouse the leftist dogma’s latest featured and fashionable lunacies. Here is just one example of the cracked lens through which the columnist and academic views free speech:
Free speech is important, so much so that opponents of Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act want it amended to allow humiliating and intimidating rhetoric to prevail. But many of those same free speech warriors now want to shut down debate about whether Australia Day should move to another date.
See his game? On the one hand, reforming Section 18C — a crimp on freedom of speech no American steeped in the First Amendment would tolerate for a second — is bad because it would allow a critic of, say, Melbourne’s African crime problem to speak freely about culture and assimilation without fear of legal reprisal. Yet when the perpetually aggrieved ratbag fringe advances a marginal notion, turning Australia Day into a sorry-fest of white guilt, the nation must listen with rapt and respectful attention.
The debate has become even more muddied in the aftermath of the sacking of Ross Cameron from SkyNews. Writing at Catallaxy Files, pseudononymous blogger Spartacus makes an interesting point:
It is almost certain that Ross was terminated from Sky because of pressure exerted by Sky’s advertisers on Sky management, who were in turn pressured by activists. See comment from Andrew Bolt this morning: ‘The activists, Sleeping Giant, are of the Left and determined to destroy Sky by attacking its advertisers.’
This is how the media marketplace is meant to work. No. This has nothing to do with freedom of speech. It is a private business making a decision on how to use its private assets based on the feedback of the people who pay it. However, how do people who disapprove of the opinions and content on ABC exert their view?
On the face of it, that is a rational position based on pure objectivity. Sky News is a commercial enterprise and all believers in property rights will acknowledge it is free to run its business and vet content as management sees fit. But Spartacus overlooks the fact that it was not the ‘feedback of the people who pay it’ that prompted Cameron’s sacking. It was pressure – not to put too fine a point on it, blackmail – aimed at advertisers by an activist organisation which took exception to Cameron’s words. Or rather, they took exception to Cameron, waited for their opportunity and pounced when his ill-advised words provided a convenient cudgel.
As noted, Sky News has every right to deny a permanent gig to someone whose views seriously diverge from its ethos. But, presumably, as a news organization, its ethos is to foster free speech, to disseminate all points of view. Cameron was deemed a suitable presenter over a long period. One could argue that his words were ill-judged, particularly in the current po-faced, censorious climate, but taken in context they could not, by any stretch of the imagination, be regarded as ‘racist’. The offending section of the show can be viewed below. The alleged ‘racism’ of his remarks is quite clearly an element of irony in what is otherwise a very pro-Chinese monologue. For this he gets sacked?
At worst his remarks might have merited a rebuke, perhaps a suspension, and a public apology. Losing his job because his employer lacked the fortitude to stand up to bullies sounds like a ‘freedom of speech’ issue to me.
If we don’t understand free speech, how can we defend it?
editor’s note: Another question Foxtel subscribers might more immediately ask themselves: ‘Why am I paying more than the bare minimum for my cable subscription ($29 a month) — indeed, why am I subscribing to Foxtel at all? — when management has compounded the insult of endless ads with a craven capitulation to social-media bullies.
Foxtel packages can be amended or cancelled by calling 131 999. Tell ’em Ross sent you.