IS Freedom of Speech really free? Really?

Thursday 4 October 2012

Last night I had a very brief Twitter exchange with a learned friend about the notion – seemingly quite prevalent on the airwaves at the moment - that Freedom of Speech comes with freedom of responsibility.

I do not share that view.

It’s a great defence and it goes something like this: He said/she said this and that so suck it up princess – we’ve got freedom of speech in this country.

Well here’s my disclaimer: I’m about as far away as the moon from being an academic or scholar, philosopher or intellectual. I am but a person who has lived and experienced life for not quite her four score years - let alone her four score and seven as Titus Andronicus would have us say.
And here are my thoughts:

Regardless of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, there IS a time in each of our lives when we enjoy complete and utter freedom to do whatever we can or want to do. From the moment we’re born to the moment our wits adjust to the fact that there are certain boundaries to our behaviour… we do as we jolly well please. We wee and poo wherever and whenever we feel like it; shake our fists and hit out at anything and everything; kick and scream and drive everyone bonkers; and some of us are lucky enough to be loved for doing it.

But gradually as our eyes come into focus and cognizance of our environment takes hold, we realize that our actions bring certain other actions… and results. Some will be pleasant – bring relief and our needs met; for some however, the reactions will not be so pleasant. We will all learn accordingly.

And thus it is when we emerge – either by free choice or forcible ejection - from our house, squalid hut, riverbed, igloo, orphanage or mansion into the wide world of freedom - we’re supposedly mature enough to take care of ourselves and be responsible for our actions.

Sadly it is not so.

Some of us will have been shown an age of reason by means of reasonable discourse; some by a thump, starvation or a stick.

Some of us will emerge as everyday citizens going about our business; some will emerge as preachers, brimstone firing on all cylinders; and alas – some will emerge as thieves and thugs… and bullies. All shapes, sizes and colours, we bear the markings and the trappings of those who trod before us.

But emerge we do - given or left to repeat or repeal and find for ourselves values, morals, attitudes, abilities and standards by which we shall live.

And it’s into a country with remarkable personal freedom that we do this emerging. With some notable exceptions Australia is a free country in a myriad of ways. We can largely ‘do our thing’, dress, choose friends and religion and what we say, at will. Albeit ever so slowly, the freedom in the Scales of Equality between the sexes is adjusting, the female dish no longer dragging its bum on the floor; and in spite of fears of Bestiality and Group Unions, Australians in their number appear to be growing in favour of Same-Sex Marriage. Perhaps one day we will even see that in this wide, brown land of ours, there is ample room to share the things we have with those who have nothing.


But how well or wisely are we using this gift of freedom? Are we taking personal responsibility for it? I remember with sadness that it took legislation before we saw the wisdom of rejecting our freedom-to-be-tossed-around-and-mashed-to-pulp in favour of using seatbelts in our cars.

Even in the USA where there’s a constitutional right to ‘keep and bear arms’, one is not allowed to pull a gun out and shoot another for putting insufficient salt in the soup, without taking responsibility for it.

And thus it is with our Freedom of Speech. Are we taking responsibility for the things we say? 

No matter the model we assume, no matter the repeat or repeal of behaviour we take on – are we realizing there’s not one thing we say or do that does not have its consequences of one kind or another?

Earlier I made a disclaimer to address the fact that I am not a Learned Person qualified to speak about Human Rights and the laws of this land. I speak not of Laws against any Incitement of Violence or Hatred.

I speak merely as a member of the Human Race; I speak because I care about the wellbeing of my fellow Man.

Is it not possible that we tread this earth for better reason than to gorge or gloat or indulge ourselves; or rape, murder, brutalise, bully, embarrass, vilify and give pain to another human being?

Is it not possible we’ve been given the freedom of speech that we may uplift the confidence of those around us; that we may encourage, support, share ideas and pull together resources to ensure we leave our world (and those who occupy her) in better shape physically, emotionally and mentally than our forefathers could ever have imagined?

Is this not bringing to the forefront a sense of Human Decency?

Look at the outpouring of grief over the senseless rape and murder of a vital, young woman in Melbourne recently. How many of the tens of thousands who trod the March of Peace knew her? Jillian’s death has come to symbolise the massive Call to Arms against Violence towards Women, against the continuing brutality and misogynistic behaviour some women suffer every day of their lives. 

The message is very clear: Take heed those of you who verbalise publicly, that any words of brutality, hatred or violence will no longer be tolerated. Say what you want by all means; but should you publicly go against the grain of ordinary, common, human decency be prepared to take full responsibility for your actions; and should this cause you loss of income, loss of power and certainly loss of any dignity you may have enjoyed… so be it.


  1. The ability of people to speak before forming thoughts worth hearing is one of those odd parts of modern life. We have technology like the internet to blurt out all kinds of things. What does this do for our knowledge of ourselves and everyone else?
    I know I've been guilty of blabbing before thinking on the internet. It's part of human nature to be imperfect and able to make mistakes. The internet is a permanent record of everything.
    There's an Arabian saying about speaking that springs to, vague memory mind... if I could only remember it. Something about "Is is wise? Is It needed to be said? Is it hurtful? " If not don't say it. But restraint isn't the flavour of these days.

  2. I love this comment Ern. SO true...and honest. Big difference though between blurting something out online or anywhere for that matter...and taking responsibility for addressing the public in a supposedly informed manner.

  3. While you may or may not be an intellectual, you certainly write well.

    Anyone who spouts that we have have freedom of speech or that their right to freedom of speech is being infringed needs to have a close look at laws. What we can say is curtailed in many ways, as it should be. Ideally we would not need such laws, but sadly we do as they would not be there if they were not needed.

    Human decency is an ideal, and most people are decent and if they aren't, then most of the remaining would be so if they stopped to think first.

  4. Fantastic post Nancy - and very well put. I myself keep changing my mind on this issue because it gets so hard (impossible?) to decide "where to draw the line". While I absolutely agree that you cannot hurt others and as part of a society we have responsibilities to each other, our actions must be curtailed etc etc, in practice I think this gets so hard to legislate that legislation must necessarily err on the side of "too little". It's not like murder where there aren't the same infinite shades of grey (just a couple - manslaughter, homicide etc).
    We have the anti vilification legislation here in Aus - which I've always been in favour of but occasionally makes me a bit uncomfortable - and there's defamation law but beyond that I think we have to accept - in terms of law - that "idiots get free speech too".
    In the US there is absolute free speech and while I think thats sometimes too much, on the other hand it tends to stand as a benchmark that is useful to have!
    There is, necessarily, always a gap between what's unethical or immoral, and what's illegal.
    You've been much more eloquent than me - this is such a slippery beast of a topic!

    1. Jackie you are extremely eloquent and I thank you for your thoughts. I'm obviously coming from an emotive angle because as I child I suffered terribly from bullying. As a deaf child in a circle of toughguys with sticks I determined to always espouse the cause of decency over any other argument. Over the years I've also encountered adult bullying and this has only cemented my opinion. I'll leave the academic/legal/sophisticated arguments to others because they don't matter to me nearly as much as saving one human being from the emotional pain I remember. Thank you so much for taking the time to put your point of view - one that of course, I respect.

    2. You're absolutely right Nancy - and as parent to an anxious, sometimes awkward little girl, bullying scares me silly. Thanks for a great post.

  5. Wonderful thoughts Andrew and I so appreciate you taking the time to write them. I agree with you. I have always believed in the basic goodness of Man and bringing this out seems to me a much better way to go than being vicious in retaliation.

  6. Beautifully expressed and with far more real wisdom and understanding than can be found in the public debate- thank you.
    It astounds me that intelligent people speak of freedom of speech as if there were no other rights, such as the right to live free from intimidation and harassment. As long as we have to (want to) live with other people, freedom has to be limited.

    1. Thank you freyabeth. I really appreciate your thoughts. Like you I became frustrated at the 'freedom at any cost' argument in the public debate. Possibly one has to experience or know someone who has experienced the pain caused directly or indirectly by verbal abuse to really appreciate this side of the argument. If my words make just one person less miserable then it will have been worth the tiny price of a sleepless night. Thank you.

  7. When I was younger and saw things in simpler terms, it was all so obvious: people can say what they like, providing what they say remains within the law on slander and libel, and it is up to the person who disagrees with them to put a convincing case and disarm them with logic.

    But that turned out not to simple – it was simplistic. Between free speech and the defamation laws, there is a grey area.

    Within this area, people can get away with defamation using a number of tactics. People and organisations with wealth behind them can use them to silence their critics by dragging or threatening to drag them into lengthy legal proceedings, even when the critic's case is strong. The less well-off cannot afford litigation that puts their livelihood, family and health at risk. So they shut up.

    Wealthy organisations have often used this tactic, with great success. So have vast corporations.

    This grey area has been covered by the law relating to vilification. Sadly that law is two-edged. As we have seen, it may silence critics who are simply being unreasonably offensive or hurtful, but again, it can also be used to gag legitimate opinion from public expression. Some religious groups who have revelled in using the vilification laws to silence unfavourable opinion about themselves have been stung by the very same laws they exploited when they have demanded the right, on the basis of free speech, to vilify others.

    The line between these two is a fine one. Recall the outrage against The Satanic Verses, or some Christian demands for exhibitions they deemed offensive to be closed, or Jewish outrage at a well-known cartoonist's depiction of some of their actions as on a par with the pogroms of World War 2.

    What is legitimate to express and what is not? Sometimes it's those who threaten violence no matter what the issue who win the day. Some have almost unfettered power over the airwaves to harass, bully and abuse.

    If we accept vilification laws, we must be sure they are serving their intended purpose, and not restrict the dissenters' rights. The more these laws are used, the more I suspect they serve a sinister purpose.

    1. Thank you so much Denis for a wonderfully thoughtful contribution. I knew I could rely on my friends to fill in bits of the grey area of which you make mention. This post is unashamedly based on a simple emotional plea for us to treat each other more kindly rather than a serious look at the wider picture and extremely valid points of law you raise. How much influence does a bully word have on a mind that is seeking to make mischief; how much pain does a vitriolic remark inflict on a grieving daughter? Addressing just these two matters alone... small in global context though they may be... is justification in my mind to suggest that we all must take responsibility for what we say. Bless you for being you.

  8. I agee with you Nancy. Well said. For people who think they are free to say whatever they like and people have to suck it up, do they not care what damage their words may do. Cronulla is one case in point. In all the vilification of and violent language against our Prime Minister, just what if someone had taken a pot shot at her? Would speech then be free or could it be seen to have a price - a price large sections of the Australian community are not willing to pay?

  9. I'm with you Brigid...and I appreciate that you've taken the time to comment. I've seen this issue trivialised in various forums because the trivialisers are not thinking it through. What may appear to be a silly comment can both severely affect a person's life and/or incite to further more disastrous consequences. We must rid our society of misogyny...we owe it to our future generations.

  10. Dear Nancy

    I've always been fascinated by this debate, freedom of speech v freedom of responsibility so thank you for inviting this opportunity to comment. Firstly it's a very fine blog and like you my response comes from my membership of the Human Race and as one who, like you, cares dearly about the wellbeing of my fellow Man.

    Whilst you were busy writing this blog I woke to find an unwelcome visitor on my timeline who directed me to her hateful blog where I was described as an SMS (Single Mother Slut). She offered me charming advice ending with the hash tag #slutteryisaseriousmatter. Of course I'm big enough and ugly enough to deal with this and after the initial shock I argued with her, yes HER, for a while and then sensibly blocked! She, along with many others would argue that this is her right, her right to freedom of speech and in fact social media and anonymity emboldens people to do just that. They argue that democracy is based on the idea that a free exchange of ideas is a good thing, even though it may make us some of us uncomfortable, and that if freedom of expression is curtailed then democracy is endangered...blah blah blah!

    I have argued in favour of this myself at times but increasingly I am of the strong opinion that your right to free speech and expression should not interfere with a person or group of people’s right to their beliefs and way of life. That comment directed at me was more than incivility, it was hatred. It was intended to hurt me and people like me but more significantly she was inciting her followers to do the same.

    My story was just an example but pales compared to the unedifying vitriol that is constantly directed toward the PM under the banner of Free Speech. I can never recall a time when a Prime Minister has been subject to such extreme vilification. Incivility perpetuates racism, homophobia, and misogyny and it’s time we said “Enough! It stops with me”. Alan Jones stepped over one of the last and most sacred of our ever diminishing boundaries of agreed manners and common decency last week with his vile comment. Most people would find an attack on someone who is grieving a loved one abhorrent. It was an extremely spiteful comment mocking the memory of her father and what they were to each other.

    Is this kind of free speech OK? I say absolutely not. If "kicking her to death", "having targets on her forehead" and "her father died of shame" are what free speech is about then it's a liberty I can forgo.

    So "how well or wisely are we using this gift of freedom" you ask. Well despite the examples above I think people are good. I think that those who care will rally when there's an opportunity to participate and the Twitteratti have rallied well over this issue. We can all do better though. If we can refrain from harming others in our everyday actions and words, we can attend to actively doing good. You lead by example Nancy and your wise words are a great source of joy and comfort to many.

    Much Love Jane

  11. Firstly Jane let me say how saddened I was to read that you were subjected to such a vindictive attack. I do not pretend to understand the sense of joy or power or whatever it is the perpetrator seemingly gained from such action but that does not lessen the pain it caused you. I trust that should there be a 'next' time, your hand will reach for the 'delete' button quick smart.
    Unfortunately, once we say something - especially on the public record - that 'something' has a chance to do its damage to the target before it can be deleted.
    I am very grateful for the varying comments posted here. I think we're all aware of the ramifications of censorship and laws governing Freedom of Speech...which is why I put my case forward in favour of self-regulation in the name of Human Decency.
    Thank you most sincerely for the kind words you were still able to give through your own unhappy experience.

  12. I stand by your words so well written in your blog Nancy.

    Freedom of speech does not equate to freedom to degrade one's dignity.

    Just as it was a film produced to ignite hatred about one's religion, such freedom will soon find it short-lived by the will of a good pool of people with common sense and dignity.

    Luke 6:45 speaks of "The good man brings good things out of the good stored up in his heart, and the evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in his heart. For out of the overflow of his heart his mouth speaks."

    We certainly cannot control the freedom of one to make a speech, but we sure well do hope that deep within them they have the conscience to know when to speak and how to speak it.

    Looking forward to more of your thoughts, Nancy!

  13. Thank you for your comment Kerry. Since I wrote those words there have been many thousands more written and said about this issue and I daresay it will continue. There have been instances in the past week or two where individuals have had cause (due to public reaction) to reflect on the words they uttered - words that were personal and surely deeply hurtful. No matter what is verbally discussed in a relatively public forum - be it religion, race, culture, sexual preference or a person's character et al, I will always argue that it behoves us all to try to speak within the realm of human decency. This of course may take a conscious effort of generations to come to educate and provide example to the young.