Friday, 27 July 2018

Another Attempt To Suppress Speech

Threats To Free Speech Appear To Abound

Liam Hehir

The width and breadth of appreciation for free speech seems to be trending downwards of late.

For many, the open market of ideas is a smaller concept than it used to be. Some wish to fall back to a narrower, more legalistic definition of what free speech is.  Others feel a more visceral urge to drive repellent views from the public square.

Not long ago, an activist telephoned me about a column I had written poking fun at the Government for relying on so many "working groups". It started with a demand to know why I had been allowed to publish it. The shrieking quickly progressed to obscenity and then to talk of unmentionable, violent things happening to myself and my wife. When I hung up, the activist continued trying to contacting me to resume the tirade.

I told the police about it. After a while, they sent me a letter saying they were on it. I've not heard anything since. As far as I know, nothing much has happened or will happen.

It was not a pleasant experience. But people like that do not present a serious challenge to freedom of speech. Their psychopathy prevents them from having any real impact on public affairs.

However, there are more sober sceptics of broad freedom of speech protections out there. They are often at the commanding heights of the academy, media and culture. They are serious and deserve to be taken seriously.

And their critiques are having their effect.
A study published by the prestigious Brookings Institution last year shows marked hostility to freedom of expression from students. One-fifth supported using force to silence people making "offensive and hurtful statements".  So what's the argument against broad free speech protections?

One common criticism is a boiled-down version of "the paradox of tolerance", as articulated by philosopher Karl Popper. The argument is that tolerance for the intolerant puts the latter in power. The intolerant will then destroy tolerance for everyone.

This view is often presented in the form of an internet meme. It is often flourished as if it were some kind of definitive answer to hand-wringing about free speech concerns. What it really amounts to is an argument in favour of destroying tolerance in order to save it.

Popper did say that, in some circumstances, the suppression of speech may be required to halt intolerant movements. But this was something he saw as a last resort, not a first response. His argument did not support the early interventions demanded today.

Popper could not resolve who will determine what speech is a threat to a tolerant society. This leads us to one of the biggest and most persistent failings of liberals today: a curious refusal to look around corners. Time and time again, the rationalisations we make and the precedents we set today are used against us tomorrow.

Think about the phrase "fake news". Today, you are most likely to hear it being used by United States President Donald Trump and his supporters to delegitimise opposition media. They have taken the concept, twisted it and made it their own.

Right now, the US government does not have the power to prohibit hate speech. But imagine if it did. How long do you think it would be before somebody like Trump started to apply the reasoning to his domestic opponents?

If that's too hypothetical for you, try a historical example.

Those in favour of proscribing repellent views often fall back on the cliche that free speech laws do not protect "falsely shouting 'fire' in a crowded theatre". In other words, some speech creates dangers to society. Accordingly, the state has a right, and indeed a duty, to protect its citizens from such speech.

Some people who use this metaphor know it originated with former US Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes. In my experience, however, very few of them are aware of the particular case that occasioned his analogy. They are usually surprised to learn it was made in the context of a judgment upholding the imprisonment of socialist activists who had distributed a pamphlet criticising conscription during World War I.

In later years, that decision was largely overturned. In the intervening years, the US developed a more robust respect for the freedom of speech. New Zealand has developed a similar free-speech culture.

And the value of that culture isn't that it protects racists and crackpots. It's that it protects the humane and decent, who will not always hold the reins of power. The re-emergence of authoritarianism in continental Europe, where free-speech rights are less embedded, may well provide a warning here.

So should we accord liberal free speech rights to those with deplorable views? Yes. But it's not to protect them from us. It's to protect us from them.

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