Conservative columnist, Andrew Bolt, has been found guilty of causing offence to a ‘racial group’ under Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act. His crime was to question the basis on which some individuals claim to be Aboriginal.
His columns caused offence to nine plaintiffs and therefore he was found guilty of this crime. What is interesting to me is the reaction to the verdict.
Defence of freedom of speech is a traditional position of the left, internationally. Speech reflects thought and restrictions on speech are invariably restrictions on thought, an attempt to stop thoughts deemed bad from being expressed. On this occasion it was a judge’s ruling that the words caused offence that led to the guilty finding.
Those who argue that people should be free to offend others are accused of ‘free speech fundamentalism’. How strange to hear people who claim to be on the left more or less justifying the state’s intimidation of Bolt because they share the state’s displeasure with what he wrote. To avoid the question of free speech, they merely assert that that is not the issue. Everything from Bolt being a “dolt” through to ‘bad journalism’ are seen as the real issue.
The beauty of free speech is that it encourages debate and conflict of ideas. In other words, it is necessary to the goal of greater understanding. Along the way, it offends some. The best response to bad speech is more free speech.
Many argue that free speech is not absolute, yet when it comes to expression of opinions I think it must be absolute lest it be lost. I’m told that defamation laws are a legitimate limitation on free speech but, to me, these laws seem to exist to protect the rich and powerful from criticism. I’m also told that you can’t have a freedom to yell out “fire!” in a crowded theatre. It’s strange that this example is used, given that there is no law against it. Yes, free speech – and freedom in general – comes with risks and costs. But the alternatives come with greater risks and costs.
Those currently gloating about Bolt’s conviction may one day find themselves in front of a judge for expressing views that are offensive to others.
Where people stand on an issue as basic as this serves to further separate left-wing democrats from the pseudo-left. The latter sympathise with, if not support, all manner of social-fascist regimes, so it shouldn’t surprise that they only support free speech for ideas that are acceptable to them.
I think back to the great spirit of 1968 when slogans like “It is forbidden to forbid” inspired many young folk around the world to rebel. And now I look at all the people, including some who embraced such spirit back then, insisting that the only proper freedom is freedom based on responsibility, that it’s okay to deny freedom when it is being used irresponsibly. This begs the obvious question: who decides what is responsible? How bizzare to find people claiming to be left-wing and yet being perfectly happy with the state making the decision.
More free speech means more debate and greater capacity to expose bad ideas for what they are. Bourgeois judges are best kept out of this process.
It is right to rebel! Not: It is right to rebel (but only if not done in an offensive manner).
I’m sorry I have not linked to examples of the points of view I’ve paraphrased. I don’t have time, but I have fairly paraphrased them after following the comments sent in to various blogs, including ‘The Drum’ and ‘Eureka Street’. I don’t think I can be challenged on my portrayal of those positions.