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Freedom of speech: 'Life itself'

By Barry York - posted Thursday, 3 March 2016

Freedom of speech - the right of the individual to say what they think - is arguably the foundation of all other rights. It is commonly regarded as having two components: freedom of opinion and freedom of expression. The latter relates to any medium, including written and oral communication, the media, public protest, broadcasting and artistic works.

As an issue and an ideal, freedom of speech goes back a very long way in western culture: from ancient times through to the seventeenth and eighteenth century revolutionary struggles in England, France and America, and the European Enlightenment. It is still relevant and sometimes controversial in today's democracies, and still being fought for in many places.

Freedom of speech has had strenuous opponents. In late feudal times when the new printing presses were allowing a wider range of people to challenge the ruling class, the monarchs, aristocrats and clergy stood against it. The philosopher Thomas Hobbes gave expression to their view when he said, 'It is utterly essential to the common peace that certain opinions or doctrines not be put before the citizens'.


Free speech has also had courageous defenders, like the seventeenth century poet, John Milton. After the English parliament adopted the censorious Licensing Order in 1643, Milton delivered a speech that was published as Areopagitica: A speech of Mr. John Milton for the liberty of unlicensed printing to the Parliament of England. In it, he made an impassioned plea for free speech. He argued: '(for) when complaints are freely heard, deeply considered and speedily reformed, then is the utmost bound of civil liberty attained, that wise men look for.'

During the French Revolution of 1789, when freedom of the press was on the agenda, the clergy argued for the suppression of works which 'offended religion, the general order of things, public decency and the honour of citizens'.

Notions of harmony – 'the common peace' – and opposition to offensiveness are frequently used by those who seek limits to free speech. A problem arises, though, when one considers who should be the arbitrator of such notions: the state or the people?

In more recent times in Australia, a similar view has been expressed by Tim Soutphommasane, Australian Race Discrimination Commissioner, who has asserted: 'Free speech is a fundamental human right but it is not an absolute right'. To Soutphommasane, the protection of minorities from offence and the pain that may accompany it is a legitimate reason for restriction on what individuals may say.

He has argued,

'As for fighting bad speech with good speech, that can be an easy thing to prescribe if one were an articulate and well-educated professional or someone accustomed to enjoying the privilege of social power. But the marketplace of ideas can be distorted; it is not an arena of perfect competition, as economists might put it. We cannot realistically expect that the speech of the strong can be countered by the speech of the weak'.


To Salman Rushdie, the author of The Satanic Verses, 'Free speech is the whole thing, the whole ball game. Free speech is life itself'. Further, he asks, 'What is freedom of expression? Without the freedom to offend, it ceases to exist.'

In 2010 and 2011, the issue of free speech became controversial when conservative journalist, Andrew Bolt, was subject to a complaint by a group of Indigenous Australians over opinion pieces he wrote for the Herald Sun newspaper. Debate ensued about Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act which allows for action on the basis of speech that is reasonably likely to 'offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate' someone on the grounds of race. The Section carries no criminal penalty but was regarded by the then Opposition Coalition parties as being too vague in its criteria and therefore a danger to free speech.

During the 2013 election campaign, the Coalition promised to amend Section 18C but the Prime Minister Tony Abbott declined to implement any change to it.

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This article originally was first published on the Museum of Australian Democracy's blog.

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About the Author

Barry York is an historian and writer who blogs at C21st Left. He rejects the current pseudo-left and regards himself as a leftist influenced by Marxism.

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