Quick Post: Your intuitions about freedom of speech are bad

While recovering from a hospital visit last week, I found myself on the couch in front of an active television too far from the remote to change the channel.  There upon the screen was a panel of white people talking about Islam and what a massive threat it was.  What struck me was how offensively ignorant the panel was.  How little people wanted to engage in conflict and so didn’t challenge the most egregiously offensive of the panel.  How incapable of interrogating the intuitions they were.

Worse, it occurred to me that this was probably a source of political rhetoric for a large number of Australia’s poorly educated unemployed people.  While the rest of us were at work, we had abandoned huge numbers of voters to this swill where, day in and day out, they were internalising this garbage.

The Australian published an opinion piece defending this noise.  It argued that Australians were tired of political and media elites not expressing their views, suggesting that what we really want is our opinions echoed back to us.  But the dynamic is more complex than that: there are myriad ways of expressing the same intuition in language, but some of them will reinforce particular concepts and others will reinforce others.  The fear of global capitalism, for example, can draw upon intuitions about unregulated financial markets or upon intuitions about Asians buying up Australian farmland.  For what it’s worth, I think a large percentage of the ‘passive’ racists in Australia are racist due to lack of alternatives: they understand that migration flows are changing and bring new challenges, but are only given racist language to express those views.

Unfortunately, this has also kicked off a discussion about freedom of speech.  This is a subject which brings out all of the worst hot takers because people think that their bellyfeel spiels are worth airtime.

A large number of people (liberals) want to express the view that the freedom of speech does not necessitate that speech will be facilitated.  This is particularly the case when people conflate the freedom of speech with the First Amendment of the US Constitution.  The First Amendment — it is claimed — only protects your speech from interference from the State, and therefore freedom of speech is only an issue in the rest of the world with regard to State interference with your speech.

This, of course, is wrong.  It’s an error to conflate the freedom of speech with the First Amendment, even in America.  The First Amendment is the minimum enforceable content against the State, but we could imagine the State enacting legislation that protected speech against other private interests.  The obvious one is employers being prohibited from sacking employees for expressing particular political views.

I’m a skeptic when it comes to human rights of any kind but, for the purposes of the next argument, I’m going to argue as if I’ve drunk the same Kool-Aid as the rest of you weirdoes.

If we intuit the freedom of expression as being only referable to the relationship between an individual and the State, then we run the risk of preventing people in vulnerable positions from being able to participate in speech acts.  For example, an activist criticises the banks for immoral behaviour could find themselves either exposed to punitive fines or denial of service if they don’t have some kind of protection of their speech from a powerful private interest.  Or employment contracts could be terminated on the basis of the employee’s religious views.  Or a person could be subjected to a relentless campaign of abuse (‘rough music’) for expressing unpopular views.  Unless our concept of freedom of speech extends to protecting people in these situations, freedom of speech is just a right for the wealthy and privileged.

This will be increasingly important in the future when more and more of our political participation requires the use of third party services (particularly Internet carriers).  If the freedom of speech right does not protect activists from their Internet provider or their social media platform, then freedom of speech is only permissible when it’s okay with these companies.

Finally, we have the censorship by proxy.  We can imagine some social media platform dedicated to participatory democracy, and a government puts pressure on that company to silence various types of participants.  Again, the version of freedom of speech expressed by the bellyfeel intuitors would not protect this kind of speech.

The real question for people is how we balance freedom of speech against other rights of social participation.  If I let the media company broadcast messages that Muslim immigration should be stopped, do I interfere with the rights of Muslim Australia to enjoy social participation with the rest of us?  The answer is obviously yes, which is why s 18C and s 18D of the RDA exist.

This last paragraph is the origin of the problems for the undercooked liberals.  They want as close as possible to an absolute right of free expression, but don’t want it to protect speech acts that are unfavourable to their other commitments.  They therefore argue that the freedom is expansive, but only within the State-individual dynamic and nowhere else.  This is nonsense.  They should deny its expanse and have it apply generally and in competition with other rights.

More importantly, it’s very clear that Australian media needs adult supervision.  The kind of noise that we’ve been seeing lately demonstrates the need for improved and more substantive media regulation.

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Author: Mark Fletcher

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

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