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Is freedom of speech under threat?

Discussion surrounding freedom of speech has been rampant lately. Claims of ‘political correctness gone mad’ and commentary on a perceived threat to free speech in Australia dominate the media.

Margaret Court recently caused controversy when she spoke out in opposition to same sex marriage. Court’s letter to The West Australian newspaper – and subsequent television interviews – divided the nation in two.

On one side, Court’s supporters praised her for expressing her opinion. While on the other side, those in support of same sex marriage were outraged and offended. The LGBTI community were forced to cope with the damaging psychological effects of marginalising comments from both Court and others who agreed with her.

There are numerous other examples, even just from the first half of 2017, like Pauline Hanson’s comments about autistic schoolchildren, Yassmin Abdel-Magied’s Anzac Day comment and the argument over proposed changes to Section 18c of the Racial Discrimination Act.

While the nature of these and other discussions revolve around a range of issues, the accompanying debate about freedom of speech is a thread that ties them together. The issue is central to understanding our current cultural and political climate.

What is freedom of speech?

‘Freedom of speech, along with other rights such as the right to vote and the right to a fair trial, is important because it is a key principle underpinning a liberal democracy,’ says Deakin lecturer in politics and policy, Dr Maria Rae.

‘Free speech allows citizens to discuss, debate, challenge and criticize government actions without fear of punishment; it is the sign of a functioning democracy,’ Dr Rae adds.

Some may presume that because we live in a liberal democracy, freedom of speech would be constitutionally enshrined, but this isn’t the case. In fact, it wasn’t until 1992 that the issue of free speech was significantly dealt with in the courts. Here, the High Court ruled that there was an implied ‘freedom of political communication’ in the constitution, which gives citizens the right to freedom of opinion and expression.

There are other laws in place to protect individuals and communities from exposure to obscenities, the incitement of hatred or violence and discrimination based on race, religion, sexuality or gender identity.

'The anonymity of the online world also allows people to be less civil to those with opposing viewpoints and be more inflammatory than if they were debating an issue in person.'

Dr Maria Rae,
Faculty of Arts and Education, Deakin University

How are culture and technology changing communication?

Despite the legal protections that do exist, recent stories suggest many individuals perceive a danger to their right to free speech. Dr Rae suggests there are several reasons why this may be occurring.

‘Firstly, as politics has become more pluralistic we have seen the rise of what is known as “identity politics”. This is when groups that have been historically marginalised – such as women, ethnic and cultural minorities, and those from the LGBTI community – challenge the dominant narrative and assert themselves more strongly,’ Dr Rae says.

‘Alongside this, there has been a challenge to the discourse around these groups and how they should be spoken about. Some people feel this has resulted in too much “political correctness” about how we can speak about such groups and they argue this is an impingement on free speech,’ Dr Rae adds.

But of course, changing cultural conditions and discourse aren’t the only contributors to the widening between those on the left and right of the political spectrum. The modern media environment also adds fuel to the fire.

‘As the business model for mainstream news media has broken down, press and broadcast organisations have become more partisan and so have helped widen the left-right divide,’ Dr Rae says.

Additionally, Dr Rae suggests that the changing methods of news delivery and the nature of online communications can also be problematic.

‘On digital media, citizens can choose their own sources of news and opinion, and this can create what is called “echo chambers”. That is, you are only seeing content that you already agree with. The anonymity of the online world also allows people to be less civil to those with opposing viewpoints and be more inflammatory than if they were debating an issue in person,’ Dr Rae adds.

But we’re all entitled to an opinion, aren’t we?

Often in today’s online world, the inflammatory nature of some comments is defended time and again by the statement, ‘I’m entitled to my opinion’. But no matter the freedoms we are given in regard to speech, the right to an opinion does not does not grant people the ability to say whatever they want without reprisal or consequence.

‘The problem with “I’m entitled to my opinion” is that, all too often, it’s used to shelter beliefs that should have been abandoned. It becomes shorthand for “I can say or think whatever I like” – and by extension, continuing to argue is somehow disrespectful,’ says Dr Patrick Stokes, senior lecturer in philosophy at Deakin University.

Dr Stokes suggests that many confuse having the right to hold an opinion with having the right to have that opinion taken seriously or considered as fact. In Margaret Court’s case, her sporting achievements do not make her immune to backlash. Nor do they give her the right to expect the community will accept views she expresses when those views encourage division and discrimination.

‘If “everyone’s entitled to their opinion” just means no-one has the right to stop people thinking and saying whatever they want, then the statement is true, but fairly trivial. But if “entitled to an opinion” means “entitled to have your views treated as serious candidates for the truth’ then it’s pretty clearly false,’ Dr Stokes says.

So, while we are still living in a society that protects freedom of speech, it might be time we all take a smarter and more considerate tact when communicating our points of view. For tips on how to debate respectfully and robustly, check out this article on how to argue your case like a great philosopher.

this. featured experts
Dr Maria Rae
Dr Maria Rae

Lecturer in politics and policy, Faculty of Arts and Education, Deakin University

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Dr Patrick Stokes
Dr Patrick Stokes

Senior lecturer in philosophy, Faculty of Arts and Education, Deakin University

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