After the verdict in the Bolt vs. Eatock case, I’ve been thinking alot these past few days about free speech. In a discussion on facebook, someone (no one I knew) suggested that Bolt had crossed a line, and that “free speech (was) not an entitlement”. This idea conflicts with the very fundamentals of a democratic society. Freedom of speech is referred to as a right, not a privilege. This is how it should be, for it is the most sacred right in the free world. As one unknown Canadian citizen said, “Give me the right to free speech, and I will use it to claim all my other rights”. It is however, the most vulnerable of our rights, and must be protected and never taken for granted.
The very idea of free speech rests upon the premise that one can voice their views to anyone who will listen. Complete agreement between individuals is rare, if not nonexistent, so there will be those who have contrasting opinions. They can voice these with the same freedom. There will be those who take offense. They are entitled to be, and as such can voice their objections. Here we have the backbone of a debate. Imagine that one day, this exchange of ideas was ended. Imagine that some crazy law existed where someone who claimed offense could file a complaint against the perceived aggressor. All of a sudden, to borrow a line from Al Gore, “the debate is over”. One side has emerged triumphant, but not by the force of their arguments. The supposed victims in the Bolt case had the honourable option, to accept a right of reply from the Herald Sun. They declined, in favour of silencing him. It was the coward’s path.
The left argue that Bolt is still allowed to express this opinion, but must be careful in his manner of expression. Is this where we’ve come to? Policing the tone of an article? How do we police something so objective? Are we allowed five strong adjectives, or must we be limited to six? How is someone to know when they have crossed the line? This is the dilemma Bolt now faces. Intimidated by legal standover men, he now dares not poach the subject that has given him so much strife. In discussing racial identity, he is now effectively suppressed. He will be likely forced to apologise. What does that possibly achieve for those who took offense at his words? We all know he still believes now as he did in 2009, that we shouldn’t assert racial differences, but focus on what unites us as a human race. It will be an insincere apology, as though someone were holding a gun to his head.
In an interview with Neil Mitchell, Geoff Clark said the law will enforced what is acceptable, and this will be defined by society. However, as I mentioned before, no one will agree one-hundred-percent on everything. It is this diversity of opinion which is the lifeblood of democracy. While some issues bring a general agreement across society, others are more polarising. Who is anyone to say which opinion is or isn’t acceptable? Bolt has his supporters, people who agree with him. Therefore, Clark cannot say that a societal consensus justifies this decision. This is why freedom of speech is so important. No one is fit to determine what is okay to think, so free speech must be an all or nothing concept. Selective free speech is not free speech at all.
Any opinion has the right to be heard in a country that values free speech, even those that denounce that very ideal. Some months ago, ‘60 minutes’ featured a home grown Islamic extremist who wants to impose Sharia Law on Australia. In his hate of western society, he would deny us of our democracy and free speech, the very ideals that allow him to present those views. Yet, even such hate must be allowed to be expressed. It allows the freedom-loving citizens of this country to attack this extremist position, and to take the moral high ground, amid the hypocrisy of the haters. Should these beliefs be banned, they would go underground, unchallenged and ever-growing. Another example of hypocrisy as far as free speech is concerned is that of Dutch politician, Gert Wilders. He has experienced huge amounts of vitriol for his stance on Islam, and rightfully asserts his right to maintain these views. This however, conflicts with his view that the Koran should be banned. By the tolerance it shows to these opinions, free speech is perhaps our most vulnerable right.
It is a right which now finds itself under threat from the likes of the greens and labor. Few greater assaults on free speech can be fathomed than Bob Brown’s call for the licensing of newspapers, an idea not ruled out by Stephen Conroy. It would grant the state the power to regulate opinion in a way not seen in this country. We must never take this right for granted. We must defend it from those who seek to take it from us. Our great democracy depends on it.