On March 31, 2009, at the City Recital Hall in Sydney, I participated in a public debate about the proposition that the freedom of expression should include the licence to offend. The debate itself was relatively inoffensive, and indeed all six speakers agreed on the need for civilised limits on the freedom of expression.
It was, however, a comment made to me after the debate concluded, that has caused me to put pen to paper. A middle-aged, middle-class woman spoke to me, warmly intending her remark to be supportive of my position - that a licence to offend which includes the right to spread racial hatred would inevitably operate to undermine civil society, democracy and indeed freedom of expression. She said: “Whilst the Holocaust is a living memory, people will understand what happened to the Jews.”
Soon, however, the survivors, our vital living witnesses, will be with us no more.
Already, as was apparent from many remarks made from the floor in the debate, ordinary middle-class Australians do not wish to turn their minds to the consequences of allowing unbridled free speech. They were prepared to assume that freedom of speech is a right we all have equally, and can exercise whenever we wish to. The stark reality today is otherwise. A licence to offend is a free pass to vilification, intimidation and bullying.
Vilification deadens honest emotions. It operates as a social anaesthetic. A licence to offend diminishes the dignity and humanity of those whose participation in society it undermines because it stops or deters the exercise of the right of free speech by its victims. The idea that liberty is measured not by the freedom exercised by one person, but rather by the freedoms exercised by us all, is central to the Australian ethos of a “fair go”. You give your mate a fair go, because that is the right thing to do and once you accept the concept of a fair go for all Australians, you cannot support the position of an absolute right to free speech.
In many parts of the world today, including Europe and North America, the right of free speech is used to deprecate and demonise the Jewish people. Fire bombings of synagogues, desecrations of Jewish cemeteries, and verbal and physical assaults on Jews just because they are Jews have followed. In many European cities, it is simply not safe for observably Jewish people to walk to and from Synagogue on a Friday night without security guards protecting them along the way.
The idea that the rule of law ought to protect the abused against the hatred and violence that inevitably flow from a licence to offend appears to be losing currency.
And just when we thought Australia was a nation in which racial hatred and genocide would never be given a platform by any public institution of merit, the Anglican Archbishop of Melbourne, Philip Freier, together with Latrobe University’s Centre for Dialogue, led by Professor Joseph Camilleri, have brought to our shores former Iranian President, Seyed Mohammad Khatami.
Khatami is an expert in doublespeak. As President of Iran, Khatami authorised and approved death sentences for gays in Iran. It was on his orders that religious minorities (including Jews, Christians, Sunni and Sufi Muslims, Baha’is and Zoroastrians) faced systematic harassment, discrimination, incarceration, torture and even execution. In an October 2000 televised address, he supported murder of people that the Mullahs of Iran consider to be “wicked” when he declared: "In the Koran, God commanded to kill the wicked … "
And Iran, of course, continues to sponsor terrorist organisations across the globe.
On a visit to Germany as recently as 2008 Khatami defended Holocaust denier Roger Garaudy as “a thinker” and “a believer” whom he publicly suggested was brought to trial merely for publishing “research” which was “displeasing to the West”.
There are others in recent history who also supported the killing of homosexuals, limits on the role of women in society and the dehumanisation and ultimately the murder of Jews and other religious minorities. Do we really want to give a platform to a person whose conduct so belies his deceptively warm words?
It is sad to think that we have learnt so little from a history where the licence to offend has led to social decay and even genocide, that we not accidentally, but sometimes deliberately, repeat the mistakes of the past.
Given the inch of a licence to offend, powerful bullies will take the yard that comes with the power of hatred. A society which truly believes in a fair go, will limit and not licence expression of the offences of prejudice, xenophobia and racial hatred.
Chief Rabbi Sir Jonathan Sacks, recently wrote: “Free speech is one thing; responsible speech another; and a free and gracious society needs both."