Good fights about big things… Freedom of speech is a cloak for ratbags

Andrew Bolt is getting sued by a group of white-skinned Aborigines.

Chris Berg from the IPA thinks this is a terrible thing.

John Izzard from the Quadrant thinks this is a terrible thing.

Luke Wallage from some PR firm thinks this is a terrible thing.

Chris Merritt from The Australian thinks this is a terrible thing (bemoaning the importance of public debate six pages after dedicating an entire page and a quarter of the front page to the message that Bob Brown should ‘take[] action to stop [the watermelon faction of the Greens] from promoting [trade sanctions against Israel].’  Greg Sheridan even says they’re ‘very close to being outright anti-Semitic’).

And just to show that it isn’t just one side of politics: Jonathon Holmes from Media Watch thinks this is a terrible thing.

Mind you, Bolt doesn’t mind making veiled threats to silence people who mock him.  I guess freedom of speech is only important when you’re the one who’s making the speeches.  But let us judge Bolt on what he says and not on what he does.

As we all know, I’m very conservative.  I’m so conservative that I wonder what Robert Menzies would think of today’s crop of ‘conservatives’.  I’m so conservative that I — like the Sainted Bob Menzies himself — wonder if laissez-faire freedom of speech is the absolute right that so many white males in the media seem to think that it is.

Don’t get me wrong.  I’m not a fan of repressive censorship, but it’s a long stretch to go from ‘Hey, certain things shouldn’t be allowed in the public arena’ to ‘THIS IS JUST LIKE NAZI GERMANY’.  There’s a grey area in the middle and, somewhere in that murk, I think the line between appropriate speech and inappropriate speech lives.

For example, I think the views of David Irving live on the other side of that line.  I don’t think that the Jewish community in Australia (of which I’m not a member) should have to live in a society in which allows people to advocate Holocaust denial.  It is grossly offensive, ignorant, and attracts nutcases like flies.  If it became profitable for shock jocks to advocate that the Holocaust did not happen, you can bet your back teeth that they’d do it.  We, as a society, have a legitimate interest in preventing that from happening.

Along the same kind of reasoning, I do not believe that people should have to live in a society which allows people to challenge their legitimate ethnicity.  That (appears) to be what happened in the Bolt case and it ought to be forbidden.  If it causes newspapers to doublethink printing such obscenities, causing self-censorship (as Merritt believes that it will), then all the better.

In each of the cases articles above, there is an unchallenged assumption that the writers’ right to say whatever they like about whomever they like is sacrosanct.  There’s barely a mention of the alternative point of view in the media because it does not even occur to them (old white males all) that there could be something more important than their right to say what they like.  It’s almost shocking that they cannot picture themselves in the position of the litigants.  Their opinions are awarded absolutely no consideration.

Holmes article at least provides some sort of reason for why it’s so terrible: he hints at the idea it’s because the harm can’t be quantified.  It’s an argument I’ve heard from my friends as well, and it seems to run like this:

1. Being offended is subjective.

2. People should harden up and stop being princesses.

3. [Insert some sort of entailment premiss]

C. There should not be a law which prevents people from saying things which are hurtful or upsetting.

The underlying assumption is that emotional distress is not worthy of consideration, unlike physical distress.  If somebody punches me, I can sue them.  If somebody offends me, I can not.

Some of my friends go even further and claim that defamation law is an unfair infringement on their right to spout rubbish about other people.  The underlying idea behind defamation law is that it is possible to harm a person’s reputation in a way which is actionable.  It is interesting that the Merritt article links defamation to the case against Bolt (but doesn’t bother to analyse the link).

Where the argument falls down is that emotional distress is worthy of legal consideration.  The next person who suggests otherwise will have to suffer the slings and arrows of my torts textbook.  The fun part about getting compensation for emotional distress is that the media likes to whinge about it as well (‘overcompensation’).

There are no good reasons why Bolt should be allowed to say what he did beyond the boohooery of ratbags who think that their ‘rights’ outweigh their responsibility to maintain an inclusive, civilised polity.

For my money, I hope Australian Muslims sue him next.

Author: Mark Fletcher

Mark Fletcher is a Canberra-based PhD student, writer, and policy wonk who writes about law, conservatism, atheism, and popular culture. Read his blog at OnlyTheSangfroid. He tweets at @ClothedVillainy

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