Why we need free speech

John Stuart Mill held that for any given belief, there are three options:

  1. You are wrong, in which case freedom of speech is essential to allow people to correct you.
  2. You are partially correct, in which case you need free speech and contrary viewpoints to help you get a more precise understanding of what the truth really is.
  3. You are 100% correct. In this unlikely event, you still need people to argue with you, to try to contradict you, and to try to prove you wrong. Why? Because if you never have to defend your points of view, there is a very good chance you don’t really understand them, and that you hold them the same way you would hold a prejudice or superstition. It’s only through arguing with contrary viewpoints that you come to understand why what you believe is true.

The government’s proposed hate speech law is a threat to democracy:

If the ability to say things that may offend is legally hindered, then the contest of ideas necessary to keep a democracy healthy is hindered as well, write Dr Michael Johnston and Dr James Kierstead 

Democracy is easy to take for granted. Arguably the last time it faced a true existential threat was during World War II, and those still living who remember those dark times are now in their 80s and 90s. Since the fall of the Berlin Wall more than 30 years ago, democracy, in various forms, has been the world’s dominant political order. . .

There is another value that is even more fundamental to democracy than equality, and perhaps even more difficult to maintain. That is the free expression of ideas, or ‘free speech’. This, we believe, is the bedrock of democracy. In a democracy, ideas and policies must always be contestable – and actually contested – so we can muddle our collective way towards improvement. The contest of ideas that democracies enable is arguably the reason they have been so good at increasing standards of living and, albeit gradually, liberty and equality as well.

Nonetheless, because we continue to fall short of realising the democratic ideal of equality, it is unsurprising that some see free speech as the privilege of the powerful to say whatever they want, often to the detriment of the less powerful. But, while understandable, this characterisation is superficial and fundamentally incorrect. If we were to abrogate free speech, we would undermine democracy and make full equality even harder to attain. As Holocaust survivor Aryeh Neier put it, “Those who call for censorship in the name of the oppressed ought to recognise it is never the oppressed who determine the bounds of censorship.”

The historical record, from the suffragettes to the civil rights movement to gay liberation, makes it clear: free speech has been a vital – perhaps the vital – tool in the struggle of marginalised peoples to defend their rights. Being able to speak your mind without being fined or imprisoned should also be seen as a fundamental right of all citizens and is acknowledged as such in the Universal Declaration on Human Rights.

Unfortunately, our current Government and our current Prime Minister seem to have succumbed to a temptation to limit free speech in the name of keeping us safe. Jacinda Ardern no doubt means well in her intention to pass laws that will criminalise ‘hate speech’. Perhaps she sincerely believes such laws might have prevented the Christchurch atrocity. But she is taking the very system that elevated her to power for granted if she thinks such laws will have no unintended consequences.

A society that leaves it to politicians, the courts or – worse still – the police to determine which ideas may be expressed and which may not is no true democracy, whether or not it holds elections. If the ability to say things that may offend is legally hindered, then the contest of ideas necessary to keep a democracy healthy is hindered as well. Many good ideas may never be expressed, and many bad ones may go unrebutted.

Supporters of the Government’s intended ‘hate speech’ legislation might argue it is only the ill-intentioned – those who would deliberately offend, hurt or stir up hatred against vulnerable minorities – who need fear these laws. But if we hand to those in power the ability to control public discourse, they will inevitably use it to advance their own agendas. They might even do this with a clear conscience, having convinced themselves they are merely protecting the vulnerable. . .

Submissions on the proposed law close tomorrow.

The Free Speech Union’s submission is here.

The Free Speech Union has made it easy to submit here.

If you want more inspiration for a submission:

Rights Institute head Terry Verhoeven shares his submission at Not PC

Graeme Edgeler explains major problems with the proposals here.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: