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Why Free Speech is the Most Important of All the Civil Liberties

We encourage you to read this article on Australia’s ridiculous and increasingly oppressive laws regarding free speech. The article is by former ABC chief Jim Spigelman and makes the point that in a free society that values liberty, offending people shouldn’t be illegal.

That is so sensible and downright adult we can’t believe it even needs to be said. But if you’ve had even a casual glace at the Racial Discrimination Act of 1975, you’ll see that it’s all topsy turvey in Australia. The Act intends to ‘balance’ the right to free speech with the right not to be offended, humiliated, insulted, or intimidated by someone else’s words, directed at you on the basis of your race, colour, descent, national or ethnic origin.

The Gillard government is proposing to consolidate Australia’s various anti-discrimination laws into one big one. Mind you, we have no problem with any law that protects individual liberty. But this is a law that does the opposite. If left unchanged, you’ll have a law that leaves it up the Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) to decide what’s permissible to say in public.

The trouble is with the ‘balance’ the law tries to strike between free speech and the supposed right not to be offended by that speech. The current language permits free speech (how generous) as long as it’s ‘done reasonably and in good faith’. In other words, you can say what you like in public, even if it offends someone, as long as someone else determines that you’ve done it reasonably and in good faith.

But what does that even mean? It means that the AHRC gets to decides whether your publicly expressed views and opinions are permissible and when they are not. If it decides they’re reasonable, you’re probably okay. But if it decides they’re not, or you’ve not expressed them in good faith – you mean to be hurtful or your words are hurtful despite your best intentions – you’re probably not okay.

The entire thing is absurd beyond belief. For starters, it’s bad law. Rather than establishing a simple and clear principle that is equally applied to everyone, it’s the very definition of subjectivity. Offensiveness lies in the eye of the beholder, or the AHRC. The test under the law is really whether someone is offended, regardless of whatever you intended that with your words.

This is all a very elaborate way of saying that people have the right not to be made uncomfortable or offended by other people’s speech. Their feelings and sensibilities, however subjective they are, deserve legal protection, including the suppression of the right to free speech if need be. What an absolute joke.

By suppressing speech, you eventually suppress thought, too. Free speech is the most important of all the civil liberties precisely because it guarantees that uncomfortable, provocative, and unsettling ideas will be spoken out loud and vigorously contested in an open society. The best disinfectant against hateful speech is sunlight: let the racists, xenophobes, homophobes and crazies open their mouth and prove to the world how ridiculous they are.

The best way to promote a tolerant and open-minded liberal society is to religiously defend the right to free speech. Giving the government the power to silence and punish people because what they say offends an individual is a one way ticket to the end of individual liberty. Enough is enough.

Of course there is always some sensible sounding idiot in a suit who will point out that free speech always has limits. You can’t for example, shout ‘fire’ in a crowded theatre. That’s true and fair enough.

But this ‘reasonable’ limit on free speech is nothing like limiting speech based on whether a reasonable person decides its offensive. You do not, at least not yet, have the right NOT to be offended in a free society. If Australians permit this restriction on their right to free speech, it will be a complete victory for narrow-minded bullies and a real loss for anyone who values individual liberty.

Regards,

Dan Denning

for The Daily Reckoning Australia

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Dan Denning
Dan Denning is the Editor-in-Chief of The Daily Reckoning Australia and the author of 2005’s best-selling The Bull Hunter (John Wiley & Sons). He began his financial publishing career in 1997 as a small-cap analyst. From 2000 to 2005 he was the managing editor of Strategic Investment, where he recommended gold and warned of the US housing bubble. Dan has covered financial markets from Baltimore, Paris, London and, beginning in 2005, Melbourne Australia, where he is the Publisher of Port Phillip Publishing. To follow Dan's financial world view more closely you can subscribe to The Daily Reckoning for free here. If you’re already a Daily Reckoning subscriber, then we recommend you also join him on Google+. It's where he shares investment research, commentary and ideas that he can't always fit into his regular Daily Reckoning emails.

4 Comments

  1. Ross says:

    I would advise those minded with ideas of freedom to be careful swimming around with duplicitous “freedom rider” Spigelman. Phuong Ngo, Nick Kaldas, Donald McDonald, James Spigelman. Oh what a wicked web NSW and our American friends weave.

  2. Ross says:

    I am splitting my sides over the ramifactions of this “freedom fighter” report for the DR team. What makes it better is that it is brought to us by Russian TV. http://rt.com/usa/news/texas-judge-construction-pipeline-834/

    Now who are our friends today?

  3. TheForms says:

    Thanks for drawing my attention to this issue Dan. I have not read Spigelman’s article but this sounds just like what Government would do. Offence is just a mental state. How can anyone have a right to or a right to be absent of a particular mental state? True madness! Oh, ok…let’s see then; I claim the right to the mental state of happiness. Therefore it follows: that person who just told me about their fishing trip while I was out and about actually bored me silly and made me unhappy; as a consequence that person committed a criminal act yeah? After all I have a right to be absent the mental state of unhappiness along with all the other undesirable mental states like, for example, offence. What garbage! I can’t believe we pay to be so oppressed.

  4. kosio says:

    And isn’t it ironic – the more we pay, the more oppressed we get?

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