Freedom of speech or I might not defend your right to say that

by Ella McNicol

“I do not agree with what you have to say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it.” Or will I? I dunno. You’re really wrong about this one.

Freedom of speech is widely viewed as one of the most basic of human rights; it’s the First Amendment to the Bill of Rights in the United States. This is all well and good, until this freedom, like so many others, is abused and crosses into that grey area of being hate speech: unlawful communication vilifying a person or a group based on discrimination. Unlike America and many other Western democracies, Australia has no Bill of Rights protecting an individual’s freedom of speech, rather common law protects those involved in lawsuits surrounding freedom of speech.

Our own Prime Minister, Tony Abbott cannot make up his mind on the sanctity of freedom of speech within our secular society. After Zaky Mallah appeared on ABC’s Q & A to discuss the proposed laws which would see terrorists stripped of their citizenship, Abbott asked the network “whose side are you on?”

Apparently, entitlement to freedom of speech depends on whether you’re supporting the government’s ideals.  This rather twisted concept (that freedom of expression should be based upon which ‘side’ you support rather than your argument’s legitimacy) perpetuates a dystopian idea of state subservience. Abbott commented journalists should give the Australian navy the “benefit of the doubt” amid accusations they abused asylum seekers. This furthered discussion about where exactly the government stands on freedom. ABC chief, Mark Scott replied to Abbott’s criticisms by reminding him the ABC is “not a state broadcaster”.

The Social Contract suggests each person, whether consciously or not, has relinquished some individual freedom to the state in order to have the remainder of their freedoms protected. Thomas Hobbes, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and John Locke were enlightenment thinkers who each explored the function of political authority. Locke’s theories link closely to the American Declaration of Independence, the idea rights are both relinquished to and guarded by a democratic authority. However, the ideas of the Social Contract assumes the state will protect those freedoms and do so fairly. If the state allows its biases to override its duty to the people it serves, democracy is no longer fully functioning.

In Australia, just as in the rest of the world, the government should not attempt to silence its critics through censorship and law making. It should accept these comments not as adversarial, but as part of the ongoing oratory expected in a diverse society. To accuse the ABC of being unpatriotic by allowing Zaky Mallah a platform for comment encourages a culture of immediate outrage at any opinion which questions current social ideals.

Freedom of speech is a phrase thrown around so easily it’s reached the point where it’s meaning is distorted and misused. Frequently the guise of free speech is used as a defence for hateful comments and offensive stereotyping. This is not to suggest our society should mould itself on George Orwell’s 1984, descending into a dystopian world where independent thinking is considered “thought crime”. Rather, it must be remembered free speech goes both ways. Although another’s opinion may not align with your own, this does not mean it’s necessarily irrelevant and detestable (even if you’re the prime minister). The 21st century is politically explosive and the rise of the internet and globalisation has meant millions more people have an accessible platform to express their views.

It’s not terrorism that poses the biggest threat to our freedoms, it’s when governments censor and silence their own people and media outlets. Christopher Hitchens in his speech on freedom stated, “every time you silence somebody, you make yourself a prisoner of your own action because you deny yourself the right to hear something.”

Catalyst has been the student publication of RMIT University since 1944. We may be older than your parents but we’re still going strong!

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