Free Speech Means The Right To Obscene Speech, Too

The French philosopher Voltaire never actually said the words he is best known for: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” His biographer invented the saying to explain Voltaire’s views on free speech. Still, it’s a great line.

But how many people agree with it? How many people would be willing to go to the barricades for racist, sexist or obscene speech – the sort of stuff that exists only in the deep bowels of the internet? Probably very few.

But if we are concerned about free speech at all, we need to defend some people saying some pretty terrible things.

When debating politics, few people would favour locking up their opponents, no matter how ill-informed or distasteful their views may be. There’s a big difference between strongly disagreeing with somebody’s opinion and insisting that they are banned from expressing it.

The solution to bad speech is simply more speech – one cannot successfully rebut an argument without first allowing that argument to be expressed.

This is the reason that David Marr’s Quarterly Essay – which argued that the Howard government was somehow suppressing dissent – was so popular last year. Political censorship is abhorrent. Almost everybody is happy to let others rant and rave about any political point they like – monarchy, capitalism, foreigners stealing our jobs, the phallocentric patriarchy etc. So there is legitimate anger when the government tries to silence even the most ridiculous opinion about politics.

Nevertheless political censorship is so rare that it is hardly a pressing issue in Australia. Commentators trawl the papers trying to charge the government as an opponent of political dissent. Every possible infringement – real or, more often, imagined – gets highly publicised.

But if we really want to defend free speech in 2008 – if we believe that free speech is a right that we are born with, not a limited gift given to us by politicians – sometimes we may need to make common cause with extreme pornographers, racists, misogynists and other very dislikeable individuals.

Last Tuesday, a 38-year-old Brisbane man, William Reimers, received 12 months probation for possessing five fictional stories about child abuse that he had downloaded from the internet.

Unlike Bill Henson’s famous photographs, there is no ambiguity about the purposes of these stories. With titles like “Daddy’s Best Little Girl”, they were clearly not art. Reimers was charged under laws that consider descriptions of children in sexual activity as child pornography.

Cate Blanchett and her 2020 team will be unlikely to rush to the defence of somebody downloading dirty stories from the internet. But in many ways, Reimers’ arrest is more worrying than the controversy surrounding Henson. Where there are legitimate concerns about Henson’s artistic practice – at what age can somebody “consent” to nude photography? – there are no such concerns with Reimers.

The stories he collected were entirely fictional. In fact, as far as we know, nobody was harmed at any time while they were written, put on the internet, downloaded, or read. And there doesn’t appear to be any indication that the stories were incitements to commit violence. Sure, the stories were the products of a sick mind. But would the arguments presented in the case against Reimers also apply to non-fictional – and non-erotic – descriptions of child abuse? This is a slippery slope.

Having to defend people with repellent views and beliefs is the grimy side of standing up for civil rights. In the US, which has a richer tradition of liberty than Australia, doing so is widely recognised as part of the job. The American Civil Liberties Union has defended not just the uncontroversial rights of religious liberty, immigrant rights and gay rights, but also the rights of neo-Nazis and the Man-Boy Love Association to express their views. Nobody in the union would agree with the views of these groups, but they defend their right to express them.

If we think that the right to free speech stops where perversion starts, then we allow judges and politicians to impose their views of morality upon the rest of us. A right which is limited by the opinions of a conservative legislator is no right at all.