Australia: Freedom of Speech, but…. with "responsibility"

“I HEAR the arguments about freedom of speech, but freedom of speech has to come with some responsibility. If we are all allowed to say everything we wanted to say, we’d be in a bit of strife.”–

So said AFL chief executive Andrew Demetriou last month when a few Carlton players used Twitter to criticise some of the umpiring decisions after their team’s loss to West Coast in Perth. One of the players was sending on a tweet from his wife, who presumably had been watching the game at home in Melbourne.

From sport to the media, we must be free to offend– MICHAEL SEXTON   From:The Australian 

Demetriou seemed to compare these comments with racial vilification by saying that this was another example of unacceptable speech. He added that “we will not accept any criticism of umpires”. Really? Don’t they put on a public show like the players? Why can’t they be the subject of comment?

The players were forced by Carlton to issue a public apology but this was not enough for the AFL, which fined each of them $2500. At the same time, the review by the AFL umpiring department of the most controversial decision in the Perth game found it to be wrong.

All these events came soon after two swimmers on the Olympic team were told they would be sent home early from the Games after posting on Facebook a photograph of themselves with firearms in an American gun shop.

Most people in Australia would probably favour close regulation of firearms and think they are too readily available in the US. But what has this to do with the photograph in this case? Yes, it was juvenile and pointless, but so what?

At about the same time the Australian Olympic Committee hired a monitoring agency to send it text alerts if any athletes started placing negative material on Facebook or Twitter during the Games. The head of the monitoring agency mentioned security scares, transport snarls and disagreements between athletes as examples of negative stories that might surface.

There has never been, of course, any notion of free speech among most Australian sporting officials but this is just one example of a culture of control that would not be tolerated for a moment in the US.

When Demetriou says that speech can be free only if it is responsible, he sounds very like the Finkelstein inquiry into the media, which rejected any traditional notion of free speech in the following terms:

“While it may be accepted that freedom of expression is important for self-fulfilment, it is not clear that unlimited free speech is essential for self-fulfilment; the speech that warrants protection is not all speech but ‘that speech that is constitutive of the formation and planning of one’s life in ways commensurate with one’s informed conception of the good’.”

Putting aside its almost unreadable style, the Finkelstein report started from the proposition that most members of the community are just not clever enough to make their own judgments about material published in the media without some guidance. The report said that, to engage in public debate, citizens must have the “relevant critical and speaking skills”, but that there is “real doubt as to whether these capacities are present for all, or even most, citizens”.

This argument that most people are stupid is, of course, the argument of every anti-democrat in history, but the authors of the report, who obviously have no doubt that they possess the relevant “capacities”, argue that regulation of speech is needed to protect democracy.

It is not necessary to like everything that Andrew Bolt writes to think that it is bad federal legislation that allows a newspaper article to be found unlawful simply because it might offend or insult some members of the community. And what is to be said about the Victorian legislation that makes it unlawful to engage in conduct that incites “serious ridicule” of a person or group of people on the ground of religious beliefs or activities? No one likes being the subject of ridicule but it has always been a means of public debate and it works only if there is something ridiculous in the conduct that is under attack.

The very point about expressions of opinion that are offensive to some or even most of the community is that they should be allowed despite their offensiveness. As American jurist Oliver Wendell Holmes said a century ago: “We should be eternally vigilant against attempts to check the expression of opinions we loathe.”

It is not the case, as Holmes went on to claim, that the truth will necessarily triumph in the market of ideas. But to live with the expressions of others that are untrue or unjust, or just silly, or that we think are untrue or unjust or silly, is one of the burdens of a democratic society, as well as of the human condition.

The right response to speech that one finds offensive is one’s own speech, not suppression.

Michael Sexton SC is the author of several books on Australian history and politics.

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