Freedom of speech. Unabridged speech from Intelligence Squared Debate 8 May 2012

Topic: Freedom Of Speech Is Over-Rated. I spoke for the affirmative.

Watch here (with Julian Burnside)

Not only is freedom of speech overrated the claim we actually have freedom of speech, as opposed to a perception of freedom of speech, is not only ludicrous but deeply offensive to those with the inability to exercise freedom of speech. Which is most of us.

The threat of negative consequences, be they legal, economic, social or emotional compounded by the oppression of the illusion of the enshrined right to free speech (or in the case of Australia the implied right to free speech) makes freedom of speech for all a perception, not a reality.

Select people have the right to say some things some of the time without the threat of negative consequences.

Look in the mirror. If you are a rich, white, middle aged, middle class straight or straight acting god fearing or pretending man with disproportionate access to power, control, decision-making, leisure and money you are almost certain to be one of these select people. 

If you are a woman, gay, atheist, an activist for disability rights, action on climate change, the rights of asylum seekers you can look forward to a life of to be undermined with micro aggression (radical, militant, loony, fundermentalsist, extreme)  at best and being gagged at worst.

Let me illustrate:

Men have opinions. Women are opinionated.

Men speak. Women are outspoken.

Men are passionate. Women are strident.

Men have mouths. Women are mouthy.

How could we discuss freedom of speech without mentioning the Leadership Conference of Women Religious

The LCWR is the largest organization of nuns in the United States.

The Vatican recently found the nuns’ organization had ”radical feminist tendencies “ and has appointed an Archbishop to the get the nuns to heel.

The Vatican did an inquiry into the LCWR and found the nuns spent too much time supporting programs like homeless and healthcare and had not taken a strong enough stance against women’s ordination, gay marriage, abortion and contraception.

A spokesperson for the Catholic Church said “Occasional public statements by the LCWR disagree with or challenge positions taken by the bishops, who are the church’s authentic teachers of faith and morals”

Some people can say some things some of the time.

Still in the U.S., The New York City Department of Education is currently seeking to have words they deem upsetting removed from tests in schools

“Fearing that certain words and topics can make students feel unpleasant, officials are requesting 50 or so words be removed from tests.”

One of the words is dinosaur.

The word “dinosaur” made the hit list because dinosaurs suggest evolution which may offend creationists.

Halloween- because it suggests paganism;

 Birthday- because birthdays aren’t celebrated by Jehovah’s Witnesses.

Also banned “divorce” and “disease,” because kids taking tests may have relatives who split from spouses or are ill.’

Other words; celebrities, loss of employment and In-depth discussions of sports that require prior knowledge. Try that in Melbourne.

Let’s talk blasphemy.

There are people who equate “freedom of speech” with “immunity from criticism.”

The United Nations has accepted several non-binding resolutions condemning “defamation of religion.” Despite the fact that blasphemy is a victimless crime.  And that offence is a healthy byproduct of free speech.

More damage is caused taking offence than giving it. And no one has the right not to be offended. Even Cardinal George Pell.

Let’s take Andrew Bolt. He’s a rather opinionated, outspoken, strident and mouthy columnist for a Melbourne tabloid who lost a racial discrimination case last year.

Bolt lamented his gagging the following day on the front page of Australia’s highest circulating newspaper in a lengthy piece and continued to rail against his silencing on his radio and his television show that week. And continues to. 

The judgement by Justice Mordecai Bromberg included this paragraph.

 ”Language of that kind has a heightened capacity to convey implications beyond the literal meaning of the words utilized. It is language which invites the reader to not only read the lines, but to also read between the lines.” 

At the time the Institute of Public Affairs took out a full page ad in the Australian newspaper, claiming Australia’s freedom of speech was under threat.

They even set up a website

The IPA was very fast to support freedom of speech when it came to someone who was a mouthpiece for their agenda. I am yet to see them support free speech when it comes to someone they disagree with. Perhaps someone questioning who they are funded by.

Unlike the IPA I support free speech. Even when I don’t like what is being said.

Anzac Day is a perfect example of how some people are allowed to say some things some of the time.

In Australia you are only allowed to speak about Anzac Day

  1. if your grandfather fought in the war,
  2.  if you do not question the myths that hijack ‘the origin of our national spirit’

On Anzac Day 2010 I sent out a dozen tweets raising the question of the authenticity of the myths, manipulating of the facts and the political opportunism of ANZAC DAY.

At the time I was writing a weekly column for The Age. I was told by my editor I was not allowed to write about Anzac Day because it would be old news by the time the column came out. On the day I wrote a column about Olivia Newton John on the back page. On the opinion page of the same paper  on the same day a man wrote a column not just about Anzac day but about my Anzac day tweets.

Free speech? For some. Not all. 

In Australian the illusion of free speech is staggering.

Take our defamation laws.

In theory, the objective of defamation laws is to balance protection of individual reputation with freedom of expression. In practice, defamation laws are frequently used as a means of gagging people and halting public discourse. A threat of (costly) defamation proceedings, whether or the claim is likely to be upheld by a court, is often used to silence criticism not only by a particular person or group but also as a threat to others.

We may be equal in the eyes of the law. But we are not equal in the eyes of the banks.

But what about laggers?  We’ve all seen Prisoner. We all know what happens to laggers? They get their hands put in the press.

Whistleblowers, squealers, leakers and laggers are considered the lowest of the low in Australia.

Despite a 2007 Federal Government pledge of reforms to restore trust and integrity in government, more than 500 secrecy clauses, which effectively criminalize the release of government information, remain in place. 

Which leads us to Julian Assange. 

Our Prime Minister Julia Gillard copped a bucket load within her own party for failing to support Assange after calling Wikileaks “an illegal act” and suggesting that Assange’s Australian passport should be cancelled.

Hundreds of lawyers, academics and journalists came forward in his support, with the Attorney-General, unable to explain how Assange had broken Australian law.

Wikileaks was and still is widely criticized in the media for doing exactly what the Fairfax and Murdoch press do EVERY SINGLE DAY.

Jemima Khan, who provided surety to Julian Assange at his London hearing, “The best justification governments can find to shut down information is that lives are at risk. In fact, lives have been at risk as a result of the silences and lies revealed in these leaks.” 

There are middle aged middle class rich white men like Kyle Sandilands, Jason Akermanis, Sam Newman, Andrew Bolt or Steve Price who suffer freedom of too much speech. 

But how free do the rich, white, middle aged, middle class straight or straight acting god fearing or pretending men feel to speak. 

How free do they feel to say “I’m scared”, “I’m gay”, “I’m an atheist” “I hate my job” “I feel like a corporate maggot” “I think I’m an alcoholic” or “I may be suffering depression”?

Freedom of speech for all is a brilliant concept. But that’s all it is. A perception. And an over rated one at that. 

There is no right to see, hear, smell or a right to grow hair. We take that as a given. 

The mere fact that there’s even the term ‘the right to free speech” proves unequivocally that all we have is an illusion of freedom of speech for all.

There are self appointed bodies that issue it, define the parameters and retract it to suit their objectives.

To be given the permission indicates that freedom of speech is not a born right.

And may I suggest that the illusion of freedom of speech is a little like cheese to mice, to flush out the dissenters so they can be punished, silenced and used as human piñatas in order to limit speech with the method ‘Kill one scare a thousand.’

See whole debate here.

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