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A better democracy?

By Dilan Thampapillai - posted Tuesday, 14 August 2012

Presumably Tony Abbott and his staffers have a presence on Facebook. Given his recent address to the Institute for Public Affairs it might do Mr Abbott some good to check out's petition against the racist Aboriginal meme's Facebook page.

The racist Facebook page is a disgrace. Yet again, a group of inadequate and resentful people have given vent to their prejudices by setting up a decidedly racist Facebook page that contains false claims, base vulgarities and obscenely racist statements. Are we a better democracy because of this kind of speech? We might instead be a better democracy because of the way in which decent people have successfully lobbied against the Facebook page.

It is difficult to disagree with the proposition that a liberal democracy requires a high degree of free speech. Yet, what is doesn't require is an unbridled amount of free speech. There are always going to be genuine and legitimate reasons to limit free speech. These can range from the mundane, as in the trade practices laws, to the controversial, as in the Racial Discrimination Act.


Ever since Andrew Bolt's defeat in the Federal Court there has been a campaign to repeal Part IIA of the RDA. Much of the commentary driving the campaign has been unhelpful. Many of the op-eds in its favour are littered with basic errors of law.

At the forefront has been the IPA. My criticism is that what is lacking in the campaign by the IPA and others is any recognition that the use of speech to intimidate and harass others is in of itself a free speech issue.

There is a tragedy of the commons issue here. The concept of the tragedy of the commons is that if an asset is free for all to use then it will eventually get degraded when nobody takes care of it. That is, everybody uses it, but nobody has an incentive to make sure that the asset is looked after and remains viable in the long term. It might be helpful to think of the marketplace of ideas as an asset. If speech is completely free in this marketplace there may be adverse outcomes. All sorts of deceptions, extreme distortions and intimidating speech might cause damage to society and individuals before any redress comes about. In effect, if speech is completely free then the most violent and aggressive people can use their speech to intimidate and harass others and shut them out of public space.

Leaving aside for a moment the charged environment of racist speech, much the same problem can be seen taking place in online video gaming.

Take for example relatively recent events in the online gaming world. In May 2012, Anita Sarkeesian began a campaign to work on gender roles in online games. In response she received a lot of hate mail and online abuse. This included threats of violence. It also included a young man in Canada creating a game called "Beat Up Anita Sarkeesian". The game was taken down from its website after a day, but it's safe to say that it was intimidating.

If a feminist, an activist or an ordinary female cannot participate in a discussion on gender or even just play a game online without being subjected to vile abuse then isn't that a denial of freedom? Should free speech protect misogyny? In response to Sarkeesian's travails people responded generously with support and donations.


Recently, the corporations that run online video games have taken steps to prevent harassing and abusive speech against women.

It is an example of how free speech actually works in the United States. The First Amendment guarantees free speech. This has allowed extremist speech to flourish. However, where that extremist speech, whether it be extreme racism or misogyny, interferes with the activities of some private organisation, contract law gets invoked to shut it down.

Though different in nature, the Sarkeesian affair is a microcosm of the type of struggles that take place over racist speech. In effect what has happened in the online gaming world is that the consumer demographic has changed. There are now more female gamers with purchasing power. The corporations are responding to their purchasing power. Yet, there is a small core of male gamers who feel dislocated by the 'encroachment' of females into what was previously a male-dominated arena. Their response to that is predictably vulgar and offensive.

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About the Author

Dilan Thampapillai is a lecturer with the College of Law at the Australian National University. These are his personal views.

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