Free speech in a liberal democracy

Speech at ‘Free Speech 2014’, Australian Human Rights Commission, Sydney, 7 August 2014.

Australia is a liberal democracy and liberal democracies are founded on freedom of speech.

This was the intuition behind the High Court’s discovery in the early 1990s of our implied right to political communication.28 That right, in my view, is deeply inadequate.

But for our purposes today, I’ll point out that the right to political communication isn’t really a ‘right’, per se, at least not in the way that we are used to speaking about human rights: as universal, based on fundamental moral principles, and innate to our personhood.

It’s a more of a pragmatic legal workaround to a basic contradiction in Westminster government. The Parliament gets its legitimacy from the fact that it is freely chosen by the conscience and debate of free citizens. But the Parliament is able to write laws that determine the rules under which that debate may be conducted and what consciences may be publicly expressed.

Then again, if the right to political communication is all we are offered, I’ll take it.

Today I want to do two things. First, I want to briefly lay some foundations for the right to freedom of speech. These foundations are philosophical. You might even say ideological.

The last three years of free speech debate, beginning with the Andrew Bolt case, has been an ideological one, as it should be. Pretending that free speech is just a matter for lawyers to negotiate competing rights claims in court – or, worse, for human rights technocrats to arbitrate between different international human rights ‘instruments’ – is to pay lip service to human rights. Human rights are fundamentally political claims.

Second, I’ll connect these principles to a few examples of what I consider to be the more interesting and concerning limitations on free speech today. The great American legal academic Lee C. Bollinger once wrote that ‘free speech is not just a practical tool for making systemic repairs, but an affirmation of what we value as a people’. He went on, ‘the reason we shelter speech is as important as the speech we shelter’. The popular free speech debate is mediated through a thicket of metaphors and analogies. One of the most common is that one cannot falsely shout fire in a crowded theatre.

It is astonishing anybody still uses this metaphor: it was conceived as a justification for the suppression of socialist anti-war dissent during the First World War. The ‘crowded theatre’ was the American war effort. To falsely shout fire was to contentiously object to that war. If we insist on the use of metaphors to determine our ideas of free speech, then it is hard not to see the stubborn persistence of the crowded theatre as itself a metaphor for the way free speech limitations are almost always defences of the power of the state.

Freedom of speech is, ultimately, the outward manifestation of the deeper freedom of individual conscience, of thought. It is our thoughts – our preferences, our ideas, our faiths, our internal differentiation from the collective – that make us individuals, that make us human. A recognition of that forms the basis of pluralistic liberal democracy.

Free speech is not a tool to make the state function better, as the High Court’s reasoning suggests it is. Rather it is fundamental to our individual moral autonomy.

I understand that’s a bit wishy-washy. But talking about principles seems to be more productive than the opposite: the philosophically empty busy-work that constitutes most debate about human rights in Australia today – that is, measuring Australian law against international treaties and identifying where the two differ.

And on these principles Australia has a massive freedom of speech problem. Our defamation laws are heavy-handed and have a demonstrable chilling effect on speech. Our sedition laws are excessive. Our classification scheme is effectively a censorship scheme. Our communications regulator believes that its job is to adjudicate whether speech on radio and television is
sufficiently balanced. We were told that the federal government abandoned the internet filter a few years ago, but section 313 of the Telecommunications Act 1997 (Cth) operates exactly as opponents of the internet filter feared Labor’s policy would.

And last week we learned that a super-injunction can prevent us discussing the absolutely scandalous foreign activities of the most important economic institution in the country – a super-injunction that we are told is necessary to protect national security. Of course it is. The bottom line from that super-injunction is this: I am unable to discuss the unlawful activities of a government department at a national conference on free speech.

Let me briefly mention a few policy proposals on the cards that have substantial free speech implications. First is the government’s proposed Children’s e-Safety Commissioner. They will have the power to delete material from social media sites – the phrase is ‘rapidly takedown harmful material’. Bullying is a serious issue. But the proposal will offer no material benefit to children who are being bullied. It is a strong example of how moral panics ultimately manifest in attacks on speech.

Second is the proposed anti-copyright infringement scheme, which would allow courts to block – that is, censor – overseas websites from being accessible in Australia. Once again, how does this differ from Labor’s reviled internet filter proposal?

Finally it is worth dwelling on the new frontier in freedom of speech restrictions – government surveillance. The sensation of being watched – and the fear that private speech or expression is going to be recorded or scrutinised – makes people more reserved and less willing to participate in discussion. As one significant study concluded, ‘the threat or actuality of government surveillance may psychologically inhibit freedom of speech’.

This is something to reflect on since the federal government announcement that it was seeking to require internet service providers to retain records of their customers’ internet activity for two years. What websites would you be reluctant to visit if you knew that they were going on your two-year activity record at your Internet Service Provider (ISP), for any of Australia’s dozens of law enforcement agency or regulators or quasijudicial bodies to trawl through years later? What would you decide not to read, or watch, or look at in the privacy of your home? What links would you regret clicking? What emails would you avoid sending?

Mandatory data retention is, and will be, a truly repressive attack on free speech. That’s even before we start talking about its privacy implications. Or its cost.

The Abbott government came to the 2013 election promising to pursue what it described as a ‘freedom agenda’. In August 2014 it also announced that it was abandoning its promise to repeal section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act 1975 (Cth). Apparently it would be too divisive to restore, in some small way, free speech, while introducing a policy, data retention, that will suppress free speech. This is incredibly disappointing.

So what is left of the freedom agenda? For my organisation, the Institute of Public Affairs, and its thousands of individual members, section 18C is still an iconic and unambiguous limitation of free speech. We will continue to fight to repeal it, whether under this government or the next.

The Roman historian Tacitus defined the essential attributes of free Roman citizenship as one who ‘can feel what we wish and may say what we feel’. Without such liberties, liberal democracy is weak, and our human rights are without protection.