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Free speech

By Don Aitkin - posted Tuesday, 29 April 2014


Many years ago I came across A. P. Herbert's Misleading Cases, a collection of legal spoofs written by Herbert and originally published in Punch. Most concerned a litigious chap called Albert Haddock, who took offence at pretty well anything to do with the Government of the day, and essayed into court to have his say. The judges all had outlandish names, and one of them gave an opinion as follows:

the only right of the subject in a public street is to pass at an even pace from one end of it to another, breathing unobtrusively through the nose and attracting no attention.

I'm pretty sure that Herbert had a similar opinion somewhere about free speech, but I can't find it. It would be of the order of an Australian is free to say whatever he or she wants to say, always provided that there is no one else within earshot.

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People like me who write for newspapers, write books and write blogs have to ensure that what we write is understandable and interesting, but always within the law. Australia has no constitutional amendment that guarantees freedom of speech, and our Constitution itself is quite silent on the matter. At the moment we have two somewhat separate yet connected arguments going on about freedom of speech. One centres on the Racial Discrimination Act and proposed amendments to it, while the other is about climate change and the feeling by some that others should not voice their own opinions about it, let alone call for real and public debate.

I have an interest in both areas, since I have had the Racial Discrimination Act raised against me over something that appeared on this website, and in 'climate change' I have been called a 'denier' for many years and sometimes found it difficult to get my views listened to in the media.

My sense of it is that there is little real support for true freedom of speech or expression in our country. Let me put it as a working hypothesis: Australians desire freedom of speech when they don't have it, but are reluctant to give it to others when they do.

Our public life is full of 'Shut up, you mug!' and suggestions that the other side should not ever be listened to on anything. There is very little real debate in Parliament, and the best we get is a set of contrasting arguments on Issue X in the better newspapers by protagonists. The notion of a free and frank engagement of ideas, out of which some kind of better outcome could emerge, seems almost absent from our public discourse.

I don't know why this is so (always assuming that I am right in saying that it is so), and I don't recall a time when it was somehow better. When I was young we had political correctness, and it involved deference to Her Majesty, a detestation of Communism, going to church on Sunday, six o'clock closing, and no shopping after 12.30 pm on Saturday. To speak or write against these verities was to set yourself up as a Bolshie, or worse!

Sixty years on we still have political correctness, but it has quite a different focus: the environment is more important than the human beings who live within it, women, gays and indigenous people are oppressed, the Great Barrier Reef is in imminent danger of collapse and destruction, Rupert Murdoch and all miners are villains, and all people who try to arrive here in overcrowded boats from Indonesia are genuine political refugees seeking asylum. Again, to speak against any of these verities is to stamp yourself as a denier, a homophobe, a sexist, a racist and so on.

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Senator Brandis spoke out a week or so ago about the way in which those sceptical about the degree and significance of anthropogenic global warming were demonised, and was himself instantly demonised for doing so. One letter in the Sydney Morning Herald asked Brandis was he really saying that people should be able to speak against the warnings of climate scientists, and that the tobacco industry should be able to defend tobacco - as though these were truly awful possibilities.

Of course, Brandis was saying exactly that, and mentioned Voltaire in that context. Now Voltaire didn't actually say, of a fellow French writer, that he disagreed completely with what the other fellow had to say, but that he would defend to the death his right to say it (the other chap's book had been ordered to be burned). That famous line was actually coined by his biographer, to summarise Voltaire's position on the issue.

The dreadful problem about freedom of speech is that it means nothing if no one wants simply to speak in favour of the current political correctness, whatever it is. It is only meaningful when the speech challenges the orthodoxy. Alas, the orthodox dislike being challenged, in part because they depend on the current political correctness to maintain their power. I read yesterday of a petition containing more than 110,00 signatures being delivered to The Washington Post demanding a ban on articles questioning global warming. And this in the USA, where there is a Constitutional amendment guaranteeing freedom of expression!

And so the orthodox do their best to shut up those who disagree with them. I would like to say that our universities remain the final bastion of freedom of expression and the contest of ideas, but I can't immediately provide an encouraging example.

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About the Author

Don Aitkin has been an academic and vice-chancellor. His latest book, Moving On, was published in 2016.

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