Freedom of Speech

By Gerry Georgatos - June 19th, 2014 - courtesy of The Stringer - - The ABC promotes itself as ‘democracy’ and the ABC’s Q&A program as “an experiment in democracy” but after its host, Tony Jones’ response to students who unfurled a banner during the program there were observers who questioned the ‘democracy’ that the program touts. Freelance writer and journalist, Clementine Ford defended the democratic right of the students to assemble and protest but which Mr Jones admonished. The program’s producers edited out from the repeats of the program most of the student takeover. That is certainly censorship – by omission.

Our newspapers are polluted by politicians and former politicians writing opinion pieces and our broadcast programs by their disproportionate representation; on numerous panels, but none worse than the ABC’s Q&A program. The ABC carries on like it is an organ of the State with its bent for politicians and former politicians on just about every format they broadcast. However, despite this obsession it is the ABC’s right to do as it pleases, that is if we are to believe in freedom of expression and freedom of speech. Despite a disorienting over representation of politicians peddling their views and agendas this is still freedom of speech even if it is gutter journalism. Investigative journalism has been given the proverbial boot but this is still freedom of speech.

Ms Ford said the students exerted their freedom of speech. “Democracy certainly isn’t about the ritual celebration of a largely white, largely wealthy, certainly privileged political commentariat being given repeated space and attention to hawk its own agenda while silencing the views of dissenting voices.”

“I wasn’t embarrassed on behalf of the students who fronted up to the live broadcast to unfurl their banners and chant against the deregulation of tertiary education; rather, I was embarrassed to watch a show which purports to be a political weekly discussion exercise such a conservative response to one of the citizenry’s most meaningful forms of political engagement – the humble protest.”

In my view, Ms Ford is correct to suggest that the political protest of the students was freedom of speech and their democratic right, but so too it was for the ABC program to embarrass itself and carry on with that “largely white, largely wealthy” privileged commentariat. Power relations are about the potential capacity to abuse but in democracy this is what occurs, and this should be tolerated to the point that the abuse is not of a violent nature or incarceration. One should be able to rant and rave and exult angrily as long as the swinging fist pulls up shy of the nose of another.

Ultimately, I will finish this article off with a little commentary about the Racial Discrimination Act’s 18C and the agenda to blow it away, and on the perniciousness of litigation, which in my view is the antithesis of democracy, denying democracy at every twist and turn.

Evelyn Beatrice Hall who wrote under the pseudonum S.G. Tallentyre, was an English writer best known for her biography of Voltaire – The Friends of Voltaire (1906). In the biography, Ms Hall wrote, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” She attributed this as a reflection of Voltaire’s beliefs. The quotation is much bandied around in describing freedom of speech. Social justice activists, young and older carry it on placards, and use it in their email account signatures. Both laughably and ironically, some lawyers brandish it as if they want us to believe they live by it.

But we know that very few indeed practice democracy in terms of tenets that would arise from Ms Hall’s statement reflective of Voltaire’s beliefs.

What if we did?

What is democracy? Is it Solon’s laws, Platonic idioms or Nicomachean ethics? Democracy is greater than these, democracy is not the will of the people but the idea that the people are entitled to the truth, and that freedom of speech is the instrument towards this. I have often suggested that the ability to discover the truth is outstripped by the capacity to manifest deceit. If this is what occurs in democracy at least democracy allows for the opportunity to rise from within the multitude of voices and challenge what may be deceit and indeed pursue the truth. But it is not democracy where this pursuance is prohibited. This is when all hope is lost and revolution by whatever form is the only foreseeable counter.

We do not live in any form of democracy, we live in a totalitarian State where laws rather than education, where power rather than engagement determine outcomes. In a society where there are too many rules there are fewer liberties. However we are increasingly hoodwinked to believe the more laws, the more protections. In a society that boasts litigation then there is no democracy, only abuse, and in a society that affords the privilege of litigation to the very few then litigation transforms quickly from a tool to a weapon. It is the death of democracy.

Litigation is a tool for the wealthiest, for the privileged, for the robber barons, it is used, misused and abused. Most litigation never arrives to any justice, rather the wealthiest overwhelms the lesser by financial attrition. Damages pale into insignificance when compared to what the barristers and lawyers charge. This is criminal, and yet we do nothing about it. We sit idly by and let the prospect of litigation scare us, we sit idly by and fear to speak up.

In my experience I have found that nearly 100 per cent of those who have cast themselves as plaintiffs are actually corrupt, seeking to suppress the truth. Litigation in general is a weapon to protect the corrupt. Imagine a world without litigation, where would the corrupt hide? Where? They would have to account. If this world means we have to soak up racist comments, prejudices and attacks to our reputations then so be it. I was always taught to account for my every word and my every deed, and I would rather everyone do this.

Litigation should be done away altogether, not just amended, that is if democracy and equality are to have a shot. Freedom of speech should not be so vulnerable that people fear various verbal abuse and various vilification. Litigation is touted as dispute settling but in an unequal judicial system where money rules, it is about destroying the other, it is about suppressing truth, it is about smashing freedom of speech.

Let there be open slather, let there be hurls of commentary at one another because it is the only way to leech from society ignorance, prejudices, biases, racisms, vilifications, hatred, tense riddled differences of opinion. It is naïve and a hoodwink to believe we can suppress these without catharsis. Let what needs to be said be said, it is best out in the open so we can engage, discuss and unfold.

The Inquisitions were built on the very same premises of litigation. McCarthyism similarly so.
A recent example of open slather generating some good were Andrew Bolt’s comments which were then attributed as racially vilifying. But the fact he injected himself in the debate of ‘identity’ despite his crassness and seeming hubris did indeed generate much good. For me I don’t buy too much into identity other than it is ones right to assert but the majority of people do buy into it, in Black and White communities, in whatever communities. I can assure that everything Mr Bolt sloppily and sillily raised did simmer but more so in within Black communities. Mr Bolt’s commentary opened up debate, smashing the taboo of not touching on the subject despite it in the backs of far too many people’s minds. As a result, various media has run numerous programs on identity, coordinated panels and hence there are now improved understandings of one another. Is this not what we want? And in part we probably have Mr Bolt to thank for it. Instead of soaking up Mr Bolt’s prejudices or punishing him for speaking out what he was thinking we have many who have responded in the ways that have enlightened many more people than the silences corral. Mykaela Saunders, alias Defender of the Faith, wrote a powerful piece on the issue of identity. NITV’s Awaken program ran a series on identity. These are the ways forward – freedom of speech and the education we unfold, our social justice and human rights languages unfold, they cannot be imposed. History should be the lesson here.

I have never let myself get hoodwinked by the fear mongering that calling me a wog or a black bastard, which I have been called hundreds of times, will do me in. What will do me in is the silence.

I would not worry too much about the Racial Discrimination Acts’ 18C which allows for people to make a legal complaint around ‘race hate’. As already noted, I’ve been called everything under the sun because of my dark skin – as a young child in the western suburbs of Sydney I was called a black bastard, a boong, a wog, a greaseball, a spick, a nigger, you name it I was called it. But I would rather be called these things and know where I stand and where those around me stand, all out in the open rather than have to deal with the greater psychosocial hurt of sensing and knowing that they are thinking it but not saying, by excluding me because of what they are thinking about me. Because if they don’t say what they are thinking I can do nothing about it, not just for me but for them too. From this point we can only go forward, whereas in the silence we can languish.

The provision of 18C was introduced in the final days of the Paul Keating Government in 1996 with the full support of the then opposition leader John Howard. If we do away with 18C then we should do away with defamation as a tool altogether, we should do away with the weapon that is litigation. Litigation can only work as a mediation tool if it is easily affordable to all parties at all times. But lawyers can and do charge unaffordable sums, and litigation needs hundreds of thousands if not millions of dollars. Well in that case litigation is cruel and not any form of justice. Do away with it. And if 18C has to go too then so be it.

Many will be surprised by my views, that they constitute a radical proposition in a far too idealistic response. Many will find this article my most controversial but freedom of speech does matter and exactly as Beatrice Hall wrote about it.