“Above all liberties”

Free speech is at the heart of a self-governing society.
David van Gend | Mar 14 2014 | comment  

Four hundred years ago the poet John Milton appealed to the British Parliament not to enact laws that would prohibit the publication of certain opinions. Milton’s address ended with the declaration: “Give me the liberty to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties”.

Free speech, meaning free argument, is at the heart of a self-governing society. It should not be a partisan issue. As the greatest free-speech warrior of the West, Canadian journalist Mark Steyn, has said: “Free speech is not a left-right thing; it is a free-unfree thing”.

And yet the liberty to argue freely according to conscience is being constricted throughout the developed world in the name of a new and bogus “right not to be offended”. Steyn speaks from experience:

In Canada, I committed the crime of “offending” certain approved identity groups. And there is no defense to that: truth, facts, evidence are all irrelevant. If someone’s “offended”, that’s that: You’re guilty.

Thanks to Steyn’s magnificent push-back against the Canadian “human rights” establishment, the Canadian Parliament has now repealed the vilification law under which he was harassed.

In Australia that remains unfinished business. The federal government is committed to amending, but not repealing, our equivalent law under which journalist Andrew Bolt was convicted of offending another approved identity group. The question facing our redoubtable Attorney-General, Senator George Brandis, is whether we can be half-pregnant on free speech.  If section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act 1975 is amended so that it no longer allows legal action where somebody feels offended or insulted, that is fine. But if it still allows legal action where somebody feels humiliated or intimidated, nothing has been gained. The Aboriginal activists who felt offended by Andrew Bolt’s articles under the old 18C could just as well say they felt humiliated by his articles under the amended 18C, and off they go again to court.

Under the equivalent Queensland vilification law, I too have had a minor altercation with the thought-police for offending an approved identity group. The Brisbane Courier Mail published a forum in June 2011 entitled “Gay marriage: the case for and against” and I was asked to give the case against.

For arguing that it is wrong to deprive a child of her mother through allowing two men to marry and start a family, I was accused by a gay activist of “vilifying the homosexual community” and compelled under section 124A of the Queensland Anti-Discrimination Act 1991 to attend “conciliation”. Of course I had nothing to conciliate. I said to the complainant: “You are a gay activist; I am a family activist - so we disagree! Free citizens argue their case; they don’t set government lawyers onto their opponent.” 

That worthless complaint was withdrawn unconditionally, but not until the process had cost me time and money. As Steyn points out, that is the whole point: “the process is the punishment”. I relished this opportunity to push back against such contemptible laws, but for many people the experience would have been intimidating.

Such laws are unjust in that they give proponents for one side of a contentious public issue the legal stick with which to beat their opponents into submission. If there was ever any doubt about the prejudicial culture arising from such laws, just recall this week’s episode of ABC TV’s Q&A. On national television, progressives including Aboriginal Professor Marcia Langton lined up to vilify and humiliate Andrew Bolt in his absence. Blind to their hypocrisy, they unjustly insulted and ridiculed this thoroughly decent man as a racist and a bully, thereby exhibiting every odious quality of the behaviour they came to condemn.  

Professor Langton has now apologised publicly to Andrew Bolt for calling him a racist. Q&A compere Tony Jones should likewise apologise for egging on this character assassination, for dignifying defamatory falsehoods as “those sort of facts”, or resign his taxpayer-funded position.

Brandis was magnificent in his defence of Bolt and free speech on Q&A. But St George needs to properly slay this dragon of thought-suppression, not just tickle its belly through impotent amendment.

Repeal these state and federal laws and they will be found to have been unnecessary as well as unworthy. Where free speech strays into personal attack we already have laws against defamation and, ultimately, against incitement to violence. That is enough. “Give me the liberty to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties” – especially where such arguments offend prevailing orthodoxy.

David van Gend is a family doctor in Toowoomba, Queensland. He blogs at www.davidvangend.com

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