Freedom of speech

How much does it cost to tell a joke in the UK?

It’ll be £2,000 ($3450)!

That’s what former England footballer Paul Gascoigne found out after he made a tasteless joke about a personal security guard at a show earlier this year.

Gascoigne has pleaded guilty to racially aggravated abuse in a British court, and will be forced to pay a fine for his misdeeds.

The BBC reports that the anti-joke judge expressed his approval that Gascoigne was prosecuted in the case.

Gascoigne has denied that he is racist, and apologised stating that he did not intend to cause offence.

However, under UK law that’s apparently not enough. This case sets an extraordinary precedent, dragging people through courts for making a joke!

It’s no longer clear what jokes are and are not acceptable. A judge can now arbitrarily declare what types of humour is acceptable.

As Brendan O’Neill explains in The Spectator:

[The judge] went on to tell Gazza: ‘We live in the 21st century — grow up with it or keep your mouth closed.’ This captures the tyrannical essence of the state’s clampdown on hate speech. What is being said here is that if you have not fully imbibed today’s mainstream moral outlook — in this case that it’s bad to tell racial jokes, in other cases that you shouldn’t mock Islam, make offensive gags on Twitter, or even engage in ‘uninvited verbal contact with a woman — then you should not speak publicly. You should STFU, keep your warped ideas and humour and morality to yourself, thanks. And if you don’t, then expect a knock on the door from the cops, a fine, and maybe jail. This is profoundly illiberal. Under the cover of tackling ‘hate speech’, everything from people’s humour to their moral attitudes to our everyday conversation is being intensively policed and sometimes punished. The seemingly PC war on racist, sexist and Islamophobic language has opened the door to state monitoring of thought, speech and behaviour.

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Nobody actually distressed? Just say it anyway!

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An Institute of Public Affairs freedom of information request has revealed that our universities are seeking to protect students from distress – even when it’s not clear anyone’s feelings have actually been hurt.

Back in April a furore erupted at the University of Melbourne after anti-Islam graffiti was sprawled on campus. The offensive writing included the phrases “Islam is not a race”, “Freedom of Speech”, and “Stop the Mosques”.

The graffiti was discovered before 7.30am, and immediately wiped off by students, as well as university cleaners.

Nevertheless, the little bit of chalk instigated frenzied activity within the highest echelons of the university, the IPA’s freedom of information request has discovered.

Just after midday a teleconference was convened with the chancellery, security, cleaning and media. The student union and the university co-ordinated statements.

For maximum effect the university put a statement on Facebook in the vice-chancellor’s name:

Many are aware a number of offensive slogans were written in chalk on the Parkville campus today. While the University community moved quickly to identify and remove offensive messages, they still have caused distress.

Interestingly, however, before putting out the statement the university leadership was informed by email that:

No students have come forward to UMSU (the student union) expressing personal distress arising from the chalkings and hopefully, given the very prompt cleaning… few people witnessed the slogans.

Despite no actual reports of personal distress and a quick cleaning process, the university felt the need to release a statement claiming the opposite.

The university simply assumed that somebody must have been distressed. And, as a communications strategy, published a statement accordingly.

In fact, it is likely the mass publicizing of the graffiti, giving it an audience far beyond that it was ever naturally going to achieve, may have helped establish distress that otherwise did not exist.

This series of events signals a worrying developing culture at our universities.

University administrators are being forced to spend hours of their day not on teaching and education, but rather responding to relatively minor cases of graffiti.

Meanwhile, Australian academics are using trigger warnings, seeking to protect students from emotional responses in class. It is no longer about resilience to challenging ideas, it’s about covering students with bubble wrap from the realities of life outside campus.

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Waleed Aly does not deserve a free speech prize

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Liberty Victoria have just announced that broadcaster Waleed Aly will receive their annual free speech award, the Voltaire Award.

Notably, he was not awarded the prize for actually supporting free speech, but rather his “contributions to many areas crucial to public life,” including on the topics of terrorism and treatment of refugees.

Aly is not being awarded for his views on free speech because he doesn’t actually support Voltaire’s axiom: I do not agree with what you have to say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it.

In a 2013 lecture, after giving the cursory statements in favour of free expression, he argued for retaining section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act.

He used the metaphor of the free market to argue against free speech, misusing the idea of ‘market power’ to silence voices he considers powerful:

If free speech is meant to be analogous to the free market, if bad ideas are to be vanquished by good ones in the contest of ideas, then what happens where that contest scarcely exists? Really, it’s like an abuse of market power: a kind of market distortion. There is at the very least a case to be made for regulating speech in these circumstances to ensure that the discourse of the socially empowered is held accountable in some way.

He, of course, seems to miss the point that government intervention in the free speech ‘market’ is an exercise of social power by the powerful, silencing ideas one group happens to find distasteful.

Aly went on to say that society should regulate the tone of inflammatory ideas:

We can also require that, particularly in the case of dangerously inflammatory ideas, that they are conducted with a certain tone that reduces the likelihood of some manner of social explosion.

Liberty Victoria’s decision to award a free speech prize to someone who does not support free speech makes a mockery of the supposedly prestigious prize.

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Queen’s Birthday Honours 2016

One particular honour stood out for me in the Queen’s Birthday Honours:

The Honourable Roman FINKELSTEIN QC… For distinguished service to the judiciary and to the law, to legal education as an academic, to jurisprudence in the fields of commercial and competition law, and to professional organisations.

As Sinclair Davidson notes at the Catallaxy Files:

Ray Finkelstein – the man who tried to introduce media censorship in Australia at the behest of the previous Labor government – has been honoured with the Order of Australia by a Coalition government.

Simply astonishing.

On a brighter note though was the Knighthood awarded to conservative intellectual Roger Scruton in the UK’s Queen’s Birthday Honours. Among many other things, Roger Scruton delivered the keynote address at the IPA’s 2014 Foundations of Western Civilisation Symposium, on liberty and democracy:

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The state has no business policing emotion

Brendan O’Neill in Spiked on how the state has no business policing emotion:

We should bristle and balk as much at the idea of ‘hate speech’ as we do at the idea of thoughtcrime…

… the category of hate speech is an extremely elastic tool for the repression of ideas. It has spread from curtailing ideas of racial superiority to suppressing expressions of religious hatred. Some Scandinavian countries want to outlaw misogynistic speech. On campuses there are clampdowns on transphobic speech. Anyone who says that a person with a penis is a man can now be branded a ‘hate speaker’ and find himself No Platformed. So even saying ‘men are men and women are women’ has been encapsulated in the ideological category of hate speech. Normal, widely held beliefs are casually rebranded ‘hatred’.

… Once you accept that some ideas are beyond the pale, once you cross that rubicon, then ultimately no idea is safe, because every idea can, at some level, be considered as offensive or experienced as hateful.

… Hatred is an emotion. It might not be the best emotion, but it’s an emotion nonetheless. And when we allow figures of authority to control emotion, to fine people for their emotions, to imprison people for their emotions, then we enter the realm of tyranny. It completes the state’s control of the individual. It expands state power from the public sphere of discussion into the psychic sphere of thought and feeling. It invites policing not only of political sentiment but of deep feeling. It is a profound assault on the freedom of the individual.It’s time to get serious about freedom of speech. It is unacceptable to repress the expression of ideas. It is unacceptable to repress the expression of hatred. ‘Hate speech is not free speech!’, people say. But it is. By its very definition, free speech must include hate speech. Speech must always be free, for two reasons: everyone must be free to express what they feel, and everyone else must have the right to decide for themselves whether those expressions are good or bad. When the EU, social-media corporations and others seek to make that decision for us, and squash ideas they think we will find shocking, they reduce us to the level of children. That is censorship’s greatest crime: it infantilises us. Let us now reassert our adulthood, our autonomy, and tell them: ‘Do not presume to censor anything on our behalf. We can think for ourselves.’

Read the whole article here.

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Even The Economist is acknowledging the global free speech problem

economist-front-page-smThis week’s Economist has an important expose on threats to free speech across the world.

The edition explores multiple dimensions of attacks on free speech: repression by governments, non-state actors enforcing censorship by assassination, the colliding of the American mind on campus, and the idea that certain people and groups have a right to not be offended.

Continue Reading →

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ACT exclusions zones target silent prayers

The Canberra Times reports the ACT’s restrictive “exclusion zones” passed last year are being zealously enforced:

Police have fined a pro-life supporter for the second time for breaching the protest-free zone around Canberra’s abortion clinic in Civic.

… the ACT government announced it had expanded the exclusion zone, to include Rudd Street, West Row, the alleyway of Odgers Lane, and surrounding roads, footpaths, gutters, outdoor areas, and underneath a “building’s facade”…

[Kerry Mellor] said that when he and other pro-life supporters went to the Moore Street clinic at 8am, there were already six police officers there.

The rest of his group dispersed, he said, but he remained in place outside PJ O’Reilly pub and was again fined $750.

“The moment that I produced my rosary and made a sign of the cross, they were on to me right away,” he said.

Mr Mellor says that he will challenge the laws, arguing that merely praying does not amount to prohibited behaviour under the Health Act 1993.

However, the courts may be of limited assistance. The laws –  put forward by Greens minister Shane Rattenbury – are a blatant attack on free speech. Section 85(c) of the Act prohibit “a protest, by any means” within an excluded zone determined by the minister.

Note: Professor Neil Foster of the University of Tasmania examines the constitutionality of exclusion zone laws at his blog, and is worth reading.

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“Freedom of speech is a good in and of itself. It has intrinsic value”

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Flemming Rose

From Danish journalist Flemming Rose’s remarks upon receiving the Cato Institute’s Milton Friedman Prize for Advancing Liberty last week ($):

We easily get into trouble if our defense of free speech is premised on whether it contributes to truth-seeking or not, or whether it serves democracy or not, whether it is blasphemous or not, whether it offends or not, whether it undermines the war effort or not or, whether it is a threat to the common good or not—all these arguments are used every day to silence people all around the world.

They are all instrumental or utilitarian arguments. They claim that we need free speech to achieve something else that is more important than free speech. If our speech contradicts these goals of higher value, democracy, theocracy, communism, dignity understood as the right not to be offended, the historical truth, religious sensibilities, the need to eradicate hate and so on and so forth—then it is perfectly OK to criminalize that kind of speech.

This is the fundamental nature of the “I am in favor of free speech, but” position.

Thus we need a non-instrumental or non-utilitarian argument for free speech. Freedom of speech is a good in and of itself. It has intrinsic value.

Viewing free speech as an individual right rather than a mechanism to achieve a goal will lead to the conclusion that there are too many restraints on this liberty, while the “I am in favor of free speech, but” point of view always will be able to justify further limitations on speech.

The argument from autonomy means that human beings are morally self-governing individuals that are able to make up their mind about the speech of other people and decide how to respond. No politician or public opinion should have the power through criminalization and bans to hide opinions and speech from us, implying that we are not able to handle it in a reasonable and responsible way. It takes away our dignity because it is based on the assumption that we cannot be trusted to listen to certain kinds of speech. As Lincoln assumed in another context, free men should not be free to choose unfreedom for others. This is where the arguments from autonomy and dignity are grounded and where they come together in a sustainable and enduring defense for free speech.

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