Free Musings on Free Speech

(This is an old post that I never got around to finishing. It’s largely complete now, so I thought I’d throw it up. Enjoy!)

As some of you may be aware, Nicola Roxon, Australia’s former Attorney-General, retreated earlier this year on the issue of anti-discrimination laws. Initially, these laws could have led to punishment for saying or writing things about a person’s ethnicity, religion, or even “social origin” (whatever that means), by which the aggrieved might have been offended or insulted. After admitting some of the legislation may have been clumsily worded, Ms. Roxon oversaw a modification of the proposed laws, removing the ambiguous references to “offence” and “insult”.

All well and good, I suppose; problems remain, however, and it is clear that the proffered changes did not go far enough. There are still elements of the legislation that are worringly vague, and all one needs to do is allege offence at something another person has said or written. The burden of justification lies with the so-called “offender”. Be that as it may, the campaign that sprang up as a result of the legislation’s proposal has been heartening, for two reasons. First, it demonstrated the ineradicable power of ideas; and second, it offered a rather timely object lesson regarding the value of the very intellectual processes these proposed laws sought to truncate.

The fact that disparate groups and individuals could create such a successful, and united, front against the onslaught of such pernicious laws is proof of the inherent power of good ideas. In this case, the power of the idea of free speech was upheld in the face of legislation whose intention it was to staunch the flow of ideas and free communication in the intellectual marketplace. A moment’s thought will reveal the value of ideas, and the concomitant importance of free speech.

Clearly, an unfettered right to free communication is fundamental to other, subsidiary rights. Freedom of thought, for example, would not truly be free if it was prevented from traversing intellectual lands that had been fenced off by laws seeking to de-legitimise certain forms of communication. A person who is not able to explore certain ideas simply because they have been deemed forbidden suffers from a rather diminishing form of incarceration. Similarly, freedom of religion is curtailed when adherents are not able to freely practice certain elements thereof, having been declared unlawful through legislative fiat. Religion, just like any other kind of belief system, relies on particular strains of thought that are inescapably animated through the liberality of unbound communication. Even something as seemingly unrelated to free speech as, say, welfare distribution policy, could not long survive if ideas surrounding that particular issue are not allowed to flow. Ossification of once-fresh ideas is certain if they can never be challenged, debated or sharpened. How else is a political community able to arrive at some approximation of the “truth” if certain ideas and opinions are ruled out of the public discussion through the oppressiveness of misguided lawmakers?

The organisations, groups and individuals who stood up for the idea of free speech were standing up for a valuable idea, one that undergirds so much else in the contemporary West – and indeed, upholds one of the West’s great innovations. What they proved was the value of an idea, whose inherent power was able to nullify a poor, yet oppressive, shadow. The ensuing debate was itself evidence that the free-flowing exchange of knowledge, ideas, thoughts and opinions (in this case, in the context of widespread opposition to draconian laws) is a vital cog in the large and complex machine we know as the democratic polity.

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