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Suppression of free speech: the real fear of social unrest

By John de Meyrick - posted Thursday, 24 December 2015


Free speech has never been entirely free. Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, although far from having universal acceptance (being rejected mostly by Muslim countries), states that -

Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.

That article however, is countervailed by article 29(2) which states that:

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In the exercise of [one’s] rights and freedoms, everyone shall be subject only to such limitations as are determined by law solely for the purpose  of securing due recognition and respect for the rights and freedoms of others and of meeting the just requirements of morality, public order and the general welfare in a democratic society.

Critically, when having to deal with  cultural conflicts between the cultures of western democracies, including Australia, and those imported with the migrants from other countries, the tendency is to yield far beyond the provisions of Art.29(2) than is reasonable or necessary to address particular concerns. Freedom of speech suffers.

The latest controversy relates to our Prime Minister’s endorsement of ASIO Chief, Duncan Lewis, request that certain members of the Coalition Government, be more “temperate” in what they say of their concerns about the link between Islam and terrorism for fear of a backlash, or (as Assistant Minister, Alan Tudge, has put it) “there is a risk of a Pauline Hanson figure arising and really dividing the community.”

The real risk of dividing the community, with respect to the PM, Duncan Lewis and Alan Tudge, is in not allowing for free speech on such issues. For it was the suppression of free speech in the 1990s during the worst epidemic of political correctness that gave rise to Pauline Hanson and the wide community support she received.

That support did not divide the community. Just the opposite. Pauline Hansen spoke for many Australians and raised many concerns that people had been deterred from discussing openly.

What divided the community came later and was twofold: the courageous but very naïve Ms Hanson’s inability to express her concerns in non-provocative terms, and all the wrong people who came to her cause. The opportunists, the ratbag element and the mischievous. She became captive to their ideas and their subversive manipulation and soon lost general support, in the end being humiliated by the media and her detractors as just a raving “fish shop owner” (as though the running of a fish shop as a lone provider for her children denied her the right to an opinion). 

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The importance of free speech within our community and to our system of law is emphasised by many judges in many cases and in many courts. One of the best assertion of this right is that of Lord Justice Steyn, who observed that “…freedom of speech is the lifeblood of democracy. The free flow of information and ideas informs political debate. It is a safety valve…It acts as a break on the abuse of power by public officials. It facilitates exposure of errors in the governance and administration of justice…” (quoted in [2013] HCA 3 at 151).

It is only when freedom of speech gives rise to likely or actual harm that the law may intervene. That is to say, when freedom of speech or other forms of expression are used to incite hatred or harm to others and possible civil unrest leading to riots and insurrection, that the law has a duty to act.

By the same token, suppression of rational discussion, debate and concern is more likely to build up and explode into irrational and ill-informed public reaction. Keeping the balance between the two extremes is the role of government and the responsibility of us all.

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About the Author

John de Meyrick is a barrister (ret’d), lecturer and writer on legal affairs.

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