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Free Speech Matters

Tuesday, 3 March, 2015

On 7 January 2015, at about 11:30am local time, two masked Islamist gunmen forced their way into the Paris headquarters of satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. The carefully planned attack, which comes after years of threats related to controversial depictions of the Prophet Muhammad, killed twelve.

The event led to an outpouring of support for the provocative magazine, with a normal weekly circulation of just 60,000. Millions railed in solidarity across France, there were worldwide dedications of support under the catchphrase Je Suis Charlie (I am Charlie), and the survivors’ edition was printed over seven million times.

Nevertheless, many prominent figures have taken a different approach, arguing Charlie Hebdo went too far, was not respectful enough to race and religion, and should stop publishing depictions of the Prophet Muhammad.

Pope Francis, after giving the perfunctory nod to free speech, talked about provocation and not insulting others. “If someone says a curse word against my mother, he can expect a punch,” the Pope joked. “It’s normal. It’s normal. You cannot provoke. You cannot insult the faith of others. You cannot make fun of the faith of others.”

The Pope’s reaction is part of a worrying tendency to call for ideas, discussion and graphics to be silenced, simply because they are provocative, insulting, or controversial.

An abortion debate at Oxford University was recently cancelled because it would impact the “mental stability” of students.

In May last year, at our own university, protesters interrupted a guest Australian Politics lecture by former Liberal MP Sophie Mirabella, only leaving after police were called.

And in one of the worst recent cases in Australia, columnist Andrew Bolt was found to have breached section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act. Bolt’s comments related to questioning the racial profile of those receiving benefits of affirmative action. He basically said that certain people who claim to be Indigenous Australians are too white, having too little Indigenous background, to justify their acceptance of scholarships and other benefits reserved for Indigenous Australians. While his argument was questionable, in a free society we must not silence people for unpopular opinions in a political debate.

These recent events call into the spotlight the way our society handles controversial or even offensive ideas.

Rather then silence ideas it is vital that we embrace heated debate as a sign of human progress. Speech is ultimately an expression of our humanity. Every time we express an idea, it is a reflection of our freedom of conscience—our freedom to think can only be exercised through a freedom to speak. If speech is limited, because we are too scared to cause offence to others, then our ability to think is inherently curtailed.

The impact of limiting speech goes beyond just the individual who has been silenced. When someone is unable to express an idea, it stops everyone else from being free to consider that idea. We are left ignorant of the knowledge we have not heard, unable to use our own rational capacities to consider all elements of a debate.

Those who seek to limit speech because some ideas are offensive or too controversial assume a moral authority to decide whether ideas are right or wrong. Curtailing speech is an assumption that a majority—or even just an active minority—has a right to arbitrarily decide what is good and evil, rather than allow for individual moral autonomy.

There is often a stench of intellectual superiority built in here as well—that because we feel smarter than others, we should be able to decide what they hear and think.

The standard arguments against free speech posit that some ideas are simply too disgusting to be voiced. This approach is flawed and ineffective. Limiting speech does not stop bad ideas. It only pushes them underground, to be propagated unchallenged in the dangerous black market of ideas.

Free speech is not about protecting Bugs Bunny or The Wiggles—it is about protecting our ability to express controversial ideas. It is about accepting that some ideas will cause us offence, because the alternative is taking away the rights of everyone to express themselves.

Our society is strongest when ideas are out in the open, contested and challenged, where the best ideas are able to float to the top in full knowledge of the alternatives.

Trying to limit the expression of ideas simply because they cause offence or are provocative is a dangerous path. The contest is often not pretty, and it can understandably make people feel uncomfortable, but the ongoing struggle of ideas is what makes us human.

Read Tyson Holloway-Clarke’s response here.