Here’s The Thing About ‘Free Speech’

Everyone should have the right to voice whatever opinion they want and everyone else has the right to challenge it. 

Queensland Senator Fraser Anning recently gave a “racist” maiden speech that even Pauline Hanson wasn’t happy about –  and that says something. Senator Anning sent praise to the White Australia Policy, called for a blanket ban on all Muslim immigration and said that “the final solution” to the immigration problem was a popular vote – a term used during Nazi Germany. Yet, even though an overwhelming majority of Australians despise his words, there’s a good deal of us saying he should have the right to say it.

While I consider his speech completely atrocious, even I know that Senator Anning should have the right to say it. Not because his opinion is worthy of airing, but because him voicing it means it is not hidden or glazed over with pretty rhetoric. You cannot challenge an opinion if it is not openly expressed. In Nazi Germany, they used propaganda to unite the masses against specific minorities, and they destroyed and silenced anything and anyone who dared to contradict it. I sometimes wonder how successful Nazi Germany would have been if they’d had the internet to contend with. Even our own Australian government is finding it hard to keep any event on Manus Island and Nauru a secret, and that’s because media outlets are not the gatekeepers of information anymore. If someone sees a car run into hundreds of pedestrians, they’ll likely to whip out their phone and start a live recording on Facebook. Anyone with a smartphone can be a journalist nowadays.

And while Senator Anning has the right to spread his vitriol, everyone else has the right to argue against him. Many people assume they’re entitled to use free speech without any retaliation, but that would actually be called totalitarianism. One such person who believes this is Blair Cottrell. He shared his views in an interview on Sky News, which caused national outrage while many companies ceased advertising on the news channel. Sky News also scrapped the interview from their channel and website.

Mr Cottrell considers this censorship, but the thing is that censorship is only ever a problem when politicians get involved. Sky News, as a private entity, should have the right to share and retract information as they see fit. Their retraction of the interview is their way of protesting and acting on their right to free speech. They’re saying that Mr Cottrell’s views are not worthy to be shared on their platform, which is their right. It’s a limited form of censorship that’s not worth whining about because you’ll never see government sanctions forcing media outlets to permanently display everything they post. Also, may I remind Mr Cottrell that he is still able to post his thoughts on his public Twitter account, as he is clearly doing.

Then there was the recent postal survey we had on same-sex marriage, where many people shouted down their opposing side. It was considered the destruction of free speech. In one instance, a group of “no” voters shouted their message at the University of Sydney, which was met with fury from a group of “yes” voters. The “no” voters were drowned out with megaphones, placards were ripped up and glitter was thrown everywhere. This is not censorship, but simply a poor way of arguing – something we all should have the right to do, anyway. Especially when it comes to politicians and public influencers. We are allowed to say that Senator Anning’s views are abhorrent. We are allowed to picket any future press conferences about immigration that Senator Anning conducts. We are allowed to write up blog posts and publish videos denouncing his views. It’s not censorship, but democracy. The dictionary definition of censorship is “the suppression or prohibition of any parts of books, films, news, etc. that are considered obscene, politically unacceptable, or a threat to security.” Telling someone to shut up is not censorship, it’s free speech. Ripping up someone’s placards is not censorship, it’s protesting. Both should be a democratic right.

Even at a time where President Trump’s “fake news” rhetoric is making waves, it pays to be vigilant. This is a man who seems awfully nice to dictators and particularly tense with democratic leaders. The more we believe that news is fake, the more Trump gets away with every nuance he elicits or omits. It could even be argued that the destruction of free speech is more likely to come from a man who refuses to take questions from specific media outlets, than a social justice warrior screaming through a microphone. Because one of them is utilising free speech and the other is hindering it.

President Donald Trump. Image: Joseph Sohm

But free speech does have its limitations: we have defamation laws, harassment laws and discrimination laws. We also have laws against the destruction of public and private property. So, really, free speech can only go so far as the right to express views that don’t defame, harass or discriminate. Nor can our counterarguments go so far as to destroy public or private property. But if you have a really good reason to voice it then you shouldn’t hold back, same as if you have a good reason to argue against it.

In this world of growing neo-nazism, religious conflict, and the chilling rhetoric of Nazi Germany and history repeating, it really pays to be vigilant. It pays to voice your opinion where you see fit. When a senator goes on a racist tirade, rise up against it and call it out. When a neo-Nazi whinges about his free speech being challenged, tell him why he should shut up about it. When a group of people are wanting to deny you your rights as a human being, drown them out with a megaphone. It’s your democratic right as a human being.

And don’t ever call on the government to silence them, because we can’t be vigilant if they’re not expressing their opinions.