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Importance of freedom of speech
Freedom of speech is under attack around the world. This is despite the fact freedom of expression has been recognised as a human right in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Any individual or community should have the right to articulate their opinions and ideas without fear of retaliation, censorship, or legal sanction.
Freedom of Speech is a freedom worth fighting for. I firmly believe it is the duty of every citizen who takes on a leadership role to defend freedom of speech. That is what I am doing in response to the legal attack on me by the LGAQ and recently retired LGAQ CEO Greg Hallam.
Freedom of speech limitations
In most countries freedom of speech is not a legal right. The old catch phrase “we are lucky to live in a free country” is at best mis-informed. Two of the main freedom of speech limitations are a lack of constitutional recognition (of freedom of speech) and outdated defamation laws.
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, in a number of rulings the High Court 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. This legal tort has been used against critics, both from within their organisations and from outside.
When we allow the ‘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. This sees freedom of speech under attack.
Freedom of speech examples
There are certain values which people have been prepared to fight and die for. These include a right to democracy, a right to freedom of religion and a right to liberty. One democratic value that follows on from all this, is the right to ‘freedom of speech’.
François-Marie Arouet (1694 – 1778), known by his nom de plume Voltaire, was a French Enlightenment philosopher. He is most famous today for his advocacy of freedom of speech. Born in Paris, Voltaire had trouble with the authorities for his critiques of the government. They sought to silence him.
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. He was alarmed to see freedom of speech under attack. His writing exposed the unjust sufferings of the poor and unemployed. However, he is remembered by many for his warnings against totalitarianism and his defence of freedom of speech. Indeed, 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 recognised as a human right under article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). Article 19 of the UDHR states that “everyone shall have the right to hold opinions without interference”.
Freedom of Speech Under attack today
Donald Trump irresponsibly used his freedom of speech many times. In response there was a community backlash calling on media outlets not to report his more offensive outbursts.
However, when we attempt to restrict the speech of our political opponents (e.g. Trump), it is important to remember that laws are universal. So when we limit the freedom of speech of our political opponents, we also limit our own. Silencing people is not a win, real victory is won on the strength of one’s ideas.
If laws to restrict freedom of speech can be used against the most powerful in our society, they will certainly be used against the rest of us. Indeed I know this all too well. I am currently being sued for defamation for expressing my concerns around local government corruption in Queensland.
The truth is often uncomfortable, as are ideas that differ from our own, sometimes these may be dangerous ideas. However, the answer is not to silence those with whom we disagree. Indeed the answer is to combat fear and misinformation with truth and logic.
So is Freedom of Speech Under Attack? Indeed it is – and it is our duty to defend it.
I am 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 LGAQ defamation case against Pyne and O’Conner is underway in the Cairns District Court. A decision is expected to be handed down soon (October 2022).