Interlude: Ruminations on ‘the costs of speech’, monkeys and Dexter
In The 2013 PEN Free Voices lecture, reproduced on the ABC’s Religion and Ethics web site, Waleed Aly makes the following observations on Freedom of Speech:
… let us grind this out, beginning with a trite observation: that, in some sense, we are always free to speak. Even if our speech will land us in prison or before an executioner, there is nothing anyone can really do to stop us saying whatever it is we want to say. The only question is whether or not we are prepared to bear the costs of our statements. We can never escape those costs. Even an imaginary society with no legal restrictions on speech at all will still have mechanisms for making certain speech costly in one way or another. Only when speech is entirely meaningless to the audience can it have no cost, benefit or consequence (which is why swearing in a foreign language is nowhere near as crude as swearing in the dominant one).
Put simply, there is simply no such thing as free speech (original emphasis). There are only different costs. When we say we support free speech, we’re actually saying something very imprecise. What we really mean is that the costs of speech should not be imposed by the State, and where possible, social pressure should decide. (emphasis added)
This provides a convenient point of entry for a few issues that were raised in comments on the first post in this series which probably should be addressed before I go on with the writing of what was originally planned as the second part. I’m not entirely sure that part will eventuate.
My latest soundings of the twitterverse indicate the heartening possibility that the promised repeal of S(18C) of the Racial Discrimination Act is becoming an increasing liability for the Liberal Party; it seems that I’m not the only Australian to Bolt’s left on the political spectrum – a left which comprises every rational and mature adult in the voting population – who sees the proposed repeal as nothing more than a gift to Andrew Bolt. Still it’s worth continuing for the time being.
I think what triggered the writing of this series was the odious spectacle of Andrew Bolt fronting the IPA’s campaign for free speech[http://support.ipa.org.au/]. During Bolt’s rise to prominence as a blogger (under the able tutelege of Tim Blair alpha-marmoset of the infamous Flying Monkey Squad) it was well known, among bloggers and elsewhere that to offend Bolt was to invite the threat of defamation action – a hefty cost of speech – unless a retraction was quickly forthcoming.
I was myself once the recipient of such a demand and yes, it had the intended deterrent effect. And yes, that fact goes quite a way towards explaining my motivation for embarking on this series. But not the whole way.
Now that’s out of the way on to slightly more high-minded things. Although I was dismayed when I realised that I’d hit the Publish button instead of the save as draft button it soon occurred to me that I was in much the position that Dexter might delight in, if he came into his killing room and found a victim already strapped to the table for him. Not one provided by some anonymous guardian demon – one who had simply walked in, lain down, and then somehow contrived to all the necessaries with the duct tape and cling wrap. Because that’s what Bolt has done to himself by taking on the IPA gig.
Bolt has put himself, very publicly, in a position where he will have to practice the principles he professes. A position where he can’t publicly proclaim the virtues of freedom of speech while privately, or underhandedly through the manipulation of blog readers, doing his utmost to suppress the free speech of his political adversaries. It is just too delicious a temptation to put his capacity to do that through some rigorous testing and who am I to resist that temptation?
OK, that’s not a great lift in high-mindedness. But I have no less justification – and probably more – for believing that it’s in the public interest to test Bolt’s limits when it comes to paying homage to virtue as Bolt had for believing it was in the public interest to expose the rotten scam of pale-skinned fake aboriginals stealing the food from the mouths of really black children and the education out of their brains by taking the art prizes and academic scholarships that were rightfully theirs (the kids, that is). And if the whole repeal S(18C) campaign collapsed because, in the end, its poster boy couldn’t control his temper and sustain his pretence to principle until the Liberals were safely ensconced in power wouldn’t that be a glorious thing?
A quixotic dream maybe and not one I’d seriously hope to realise alone. But Bolt is no windmill – he’s a bullying blowhard who’s been foolish enough to put himself in a vulnerable position. I wouldn’t even claim to be the first to recognise that – at most I might be the first to state it in public.
Finally, a partial answer to David Walker’s question here:
Gummo: Do you think that this law is a good one, and if so, why?
Well, I have no objection to the inclusion of insult and offence as grounds for civil action under S(18C). Consider the following hypothetical case:
A young journalism graduate gets a job as a cadet journalist at a major metro newspaper (News Ltd or Fairfax, it doesn’t really matter). While in social conversation with another cadet she lets slip that she got through Uni with the help of a scholarship for Aboriginal students. She’s one of Bolt’s ‘fake’ aboriginals. Unfortunately for her Bolt is her fellow cadet’s idol, role model and inspiration for choosing the journalistic profession (and if you’ve chosen a Fairfax newspaper he’d obviously much rather be working at News Ltd).
He makes an insulting and offensive remark – no biggie. Something you can shrug off. Obviously they’re not going be on good terms from hereon, avoiding each other in the lunchroom, reluctant to take assignments together etc. But on those occasions when they do unavoidably meet in the workplace he always contrives somehow, especially in the presence of other staff, to find something insulting or offensive to her, or such a remark to someone else in a voice not quite low enough that he can’t be overheard.
I won’t elaborate the scenario beyond that – you can fill a variety of continuations and ultimate outcomes. He is clearly doing her wrong, and I think it desirable that she have legal redress for that wrong, should she wish to seek it. I’d add that I see no need, in a case of this nature, for the Federal court to deal with the matter. The magistrate’s courts in Victoria, for example, deal with certain torts and similarly in the Federal system there are other means to deal with these cases so there’s no need to go the full on wig and gown, top silks in the Federal Court route.
So, is it a good law? At this stage, I’ll say no more than that it isn’t the egregiously bad law that Bolt and his supporters make it out to be. It may well be a necessary law given the current social and political climate but please, no inquisitorial probing on that suggestion. It’s a matter that needs further consideration.
And now, I hope, back to something more closely approaching the oringinal plan.