Freedom of Speech Under Attack
Freedom of Speech is under attack. I firmly believe it is the duty of every citizen to defend it wherever they can. Most of us live in countries where freedom of speech is not recognised as a right. The old catch phrase “we are lucky to live in a free country” is at least mis-informed.
The United States and a number of other western countries have a constitutionally guaranteed freedom of speech. However, in most of the world, including Australia, this is not the case.
In Australia the High Court in a number of rulings has said that our constitution frames us as a liberal democracy, which means certain democratic freedoms are inherent. However, the lack of a bill of rights or constitutionally entrenched freedom of speech means expressing your views in this country can have dire consequences.
Increasing use of defamation litigation is a worrying trend that is threatening freedom of speech. In my view, it is often an abuse of power, such as when politicians and CEO’s use defamation law to silence people both from within their organisations and outside. When we allow their right to sue to dominate over the right to freedom of speech, we put at risk a long held liberty for which many have sacrificed.
Freedom of Speech under law has been the fight for a legal right.
There are certain values for which people have been prepared to fight and die. These include a right to democracy, a right to freedom of religion and a right to liberty. Another crucial value is freedom of speech. Much has been sacrificed by people fighting for freedom of speech.
François-Marie Arouet (1694 – 1778), known by his nom de plume Voltaire, was a French Enlightenment philosopher most famous today for his advocacy of freedom of speech. Born in Paris, Voltaire had trouble with the authorities for critiques of the government.
Voltaire clearly stated his belief that, “The right to free speech is more important than the content of the speech.” As a result of criticism of the French government of the day, Voltaire was twice sentenced to prison and once to temporary exile to England.
George Orwell is one of the world’s most famous writers and social commentators. His writing exposed the unjust sufferings of the poor and unemployed. However, he is remembered by many for his warnings against totalitarianism and defended freedom of speech. He famously wrote, ‘If liberty means anything at all it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.’
Universal Declaration of Human Rights
The right to freedom of expression is recognized as a human right under article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and recognized in international human rights law in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). Article 19 of the UDHR states that “everyone shall have the right to hold opinions without interference”.
Freedom of Speech Under attack today
The campaign for freedom speech has come under attack following the presidency of Donald Trump. He irresponsibly used his freedom speech many times, most infamously in his infamous incitement to attack the Capitol Building. However, we need to remember Trump’s speech was far from restricted. Indeed, he was surely one of the most vocal presidents of modern times. What was the result? He was rejected at the ballot box. This is exactly the way to defeat your opponent. Not through restricting their speech, but through the battle of ideas in the application of reason.
When attempting to restrict the speech of our political opponents it is important to remember that laws are universal. They apply to everyone. When we limit the freedom of speech about political opponents, we limit our own.
If laws can be used against the most powerful in our society, they will certainly be used against the rest of us. I found this to my disappointment, when I was sued for defamation for expressing my concerns around local government corruption in Queensland. Some of the concerns I raised ended with criminal convictions!
My case will come to trial before the end of 2021 and I will certainly be doing my best to put the argument for freedom of speech; indeed, I will put everything I have on the line to defend it.
The truth is often uncomfortable, as are opinions that differ from our own. The answer is not to silence those with whom we disagree. The answer is to combat fear and misinformation with truth and logic. It must be the only answer we are prepared to adopt.
Cr. Rob Pyne (Disabled former MP, and Local Government Councillor)