Free Speech: What are it’s limits?

Ross Fitzgerald
Overland / Liberty Victoria

Once again, Australians are debating the wys and wherefores of laws to outlaw racial vilification and violence

The Federal Government is preparing legislation which is expected to outlaw expressions of racial hatred in publications and public speech

The Minister for Immigration and Ethnic Affairs, Senator Bolkus, has declared that the right to free speech must be balanced against the right of citizens to live ‘free of violence, harassment and persecution’.

In order to further the debate, we publish overseas as well as Australian perspectives on the vexed subject of freedom of speech and freedom from vilification.


Few people actually believe in freedom of speech. They believe in freedom of speech
for themselves, but they tend not to believe in freedom of speech that contravenes their
own deeply held beliefs, be they religious, political, sexual, or whatever.

Praise of free speech by others is often insincere. As soon as people start saying what
they really think about controversial topics, others will say, “Free speech by all means,
but not that free. You want licence, not liberty”. Licence here translates as what that
person disapproves of – what he or she believes ought not be said or advocated.

Few supporters of ‘free speech’ mean what they say. Free speech’ is rather like ‘Habeas
Corpus’, as soon as it looks like being useful, say in wartime, there are moves to have it
suspended or curtailed. It requires considerable courage to defend the rights of
individuals and groups to make utterances and to promulgate ideas no matter how
unpopular they are or how hurtful of other people’s feelings. But if we are committed to
critical inquiry it is crucial to protect the speech of those whose ideas and opinions we,
or others, regard as vicious, hurtful, cruel, misguided or just plain wrong. This is
because the consequences of suppression of such utterances are far worse than the ‘hurt’
they may inflict.

Freedom of speech and free thought are currently under attack by a new wave of
suppression, including what one may loosely call the political correctness movement.
This is taking hold in a number of our government departments, statutory authorities,
and particularly in our tertiary institutions via, for example, the introduction of speech
or language codes to enforce politically correct expression and utterance. There is a
corresponding tendency to restrict from critical discussion and open debate certain
‘sensitive’ issues, relating especially to matters of sex, religious beliefs, race and gender.

When I was a child living in the gruelling, if not ghoulishly petit bourgeois Melbourne
suburb of East Brighton, along with most of my confreres I learnt to parrot “Sticks and
stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me”.

While sticks and stones can certainly break bones, words can sometimes hurt us. I
remember running home from school in tears after being called ‘Dumbo the Elephant’ -
this (to me at least) hurtful taunt applying not so much to my bulk or apparent stupidity
but to the hugeness of my ears.

Being a relatively secure, Aussie-Rules supporting, white Anglo-Celtic male child in a
suburb which boasted modest homes but had absolutely no flats let alone any
Aboriginal inhabitants, I wasn’t all that hurt by terms of abuse. This, of course, didn’t,
and does not apply to many others. Epithets, especially of racial, sexual, or religious
abuse, can indeed emotionally hurt or wound those at whom they are directed. not think
through its dreadful consequences.

But while this must be accepted, it is important to understand the implication of what is
a relatively new phenomenon – and that is a gathering tendency to blur the distinction
between words and physical violence, and instead to argue that hurtful words and ideas
are actually a form of violence. Thus ‘offensive’ words are categorised as an assault – as
in the phrase ‘verbal harassment’ or more tellingly ‘assaultative speech’.

An integrally connecting notion, which is also rapidly gaining prominence, is that the
utterance of such words and ideas should be proscribed, the (potential) utterers banned,
and the perpetrators of such hurtful or offensive speech punished.

While the commandment ‘Thou shalt not hurt another individual or group with words”
may on the face of it sound admirable, in fact it is extremely threatening to critical
inquiry, which is a lynch-pin of the liberal-democratic system. As Jonathan Rauch
argues, in Kindly Inquisitors: The New Attacks on Free Thought (University of Chicago
Press, l993), “This moral principle is deadly – inherently deadly, not incidentally so – to
intellectual freedom and to the productive and peaceful pursuit of knowledge”. The
injunction not to inflict harm by words is deeply antagonistic to free speech, free thought
and critical inquiry. What Rauch calls “the new sensitivity”, which would regulate
criticism and utterance on the grounds of preventing hurt or offences, he argues, the old
Inquisitorial authoritarianism in disguise. It is just as noxious, if not more so, being
cloaked in the guise of compassion. Almost always, its advocates do not think through
its dreadful consequences.

It is important to insist that talk of words as weapons must be seen to be metaphor. It is
crucial to maintain the distinction between words and weapons. You do not have to be
Immanual Kant, as Rauch explains, “to see what comes after ‘offensive words are
bullets’: if you hurt me with words, I reply with bullets, and the exchange is even … If
you are inclined to equate verbal offence with physical violence think again about the
logic of your position. If hurtful opinions are violence, then painful criticism is violence
… What do you do about violence? You establish policing authorities -public or private
- to stop it and to punish the perpetrators. You set up authorities empowered to weed
out hurtful ideas and speech”. Or in the case of Salman Rushdie you sentence him, and
the translators of The Satanic Verses , to death.

The Ayatollah Khomeini, who placed the fatwa on Rushdie for writing “in obscene and
blasphemous opposition to Islam, the prophet and the Koran”, once said in an interview
(1979) “I do know that, during my long lifetime, I have always been right about what I
said”. Although I would not wish to push any personal resemblances, in this
breathtakingly fundamentalist certainty the Ayatollah isn’t all that far removed, in
principle, from modern westerners, however well-meaning, who wish to stop others
causing pain and hurt and offence with their evil words and ideas. One of the many
problems with this position is that ‘evil’ is often in the ear and eye of the

Once you suppress one form of offensive utterance the way is open to suppress another.
As Saul Bellow put it fictively. “Everyone knows there is no fineness of accuracy of
suppression. If you hold one thing down you hold down the adjoining”.
Let us not beat about the bush. Salman Rushdie’s satire was deeply insulting and
offensive to a great many Muslims. To them it did undoubtedly cause emotional hurt
and suffering. As liberal-democrats we need to admit that truth and yet argue that this
is the price we must pay for freedom of expression; that people do not have a right not
to be offended, that they do not have a right to seek punishing vengeance for the hurt
and anger and pain caused by another’s words.

But Rushdie’s fatwa, with very few exceptions, produced no such hones response. Hence
there was no clear and principled defence of Rushdie’s freedom of expression which
must include the freedom to offend.

Without the freedom to offend, freedom of expression ceases to exist. currently in
Australia satire, with its multi-faceted potentialities for enlightenment, advance and
offence is under threat by well-meaning legislation, including anti-racial vilification,
anti-sexist and anti-ageist legislation. Yet, it is any good, satire must and should offend.
As Mort Sahl taught me, the true satirist should have a go at everyone – especially
oneself. No group or individual should be barred. But try telling that to the thoughtpolice.
There is concerted move to blackball the discussion of certain ideas and issues by saying,
as Dr Hewson recently said of Tim Fischer, that such discussion is ‘not helpful’, or is
‘inappropriate’ or ‘divisive’, or else by labelling the speaker ‘racist’ or ‘fascist’ or
‘reactionary’ or by suggesting that ‘one shouldn’t be discussing this’, which is all very
different from arguing whether or not the propositions put forward are or are not true.
There is also a concerted move to outlaw the use of certain words which are held to be
offensive. When I was a child, my mother and my auntie, both called Edna, enjoined me
“Don’t use language”. A similar injunction is beginning to apply to certain terms of
alleged abuse. One of the difficulties with such regulation is that such words or terms of
derision (black, queer,etc.) are often turned upside down by minority groups to become
words of pride and political mobilisation, such as the use of ‘Queer Nation’ or ‘Black is
Beautiful’. Here in Australia, with the rise of the Melanesian self-determination
movement, do not be surprised if in ten years’ time the current obscene term ‘Kanaka’ is
adopted by the Melanesians themselves.

In the 1950s and l960s political correctness was fundamentally of the right. Now much
of the impetus comes from what should be our most progressive forces Thus, many of
our tertiary institutions, which should be in the forefront of promoting freedom of
expression and critical inquiry, are instead in the forefront of establishing bureaucratic
codes of regulation and inculcating conformity.

In some of our universities, which ought to have an intellectual obligation to cultivate
rather than curtail criticism, increasingly students and staff are afraid to say anything
about controversial topics lest they be misconstrued.

Rather than regulating, obstructing or banning from speech those individuals who
promulgate unpopular ideas, what we should be doing is encouraging widespread
discussion, examination and debate so that those ideas can be criticised and if necessary
repudiated. We ought adopt the position attributed to Voltaire, that seasoned opponent
of humbug, puritanism and other attacks on free thinking, “I disapprove of what you say
but I will defend to the death your right to say it”.

Any attempt to exercise political control over knowledge and the expression of belief is
reprehensible, as is any suppression of speech and criticism no matter how ill-informed
those ideas may be. That is why it is crucial that creationists and revisionist German
historians and white supremacists also be granted their entitlement to speak , as long as
they do not commit or cause actual physical violence.

While one American university (Connecticut) has already adopted rules punishing
students for the use of “derogatory names, inappropriately directed laughter,
inconsiderate jokes and conspicuous exclusion of certain students from conversation”, as
The Australian reported last year, Adelaide University is seriously considering an antiracial policy that will scrutinise curricula for “cultural insensitivities that are the result of historically Euro centric views”. Good intention no doubt, but disastrous in its

There are indeed many forces, apart from outright censorship, acting to restrict public
debate in the west, including Australia. That is why a few months ago a group of us
including the libertarian-lesbian Margaret Bateman, ex AAP Reuters journalist Lorann
Downer, journalist Phil Dickie now with the Queensland Criminal Justice Commission,
columnist and broadcaster Phillip Adams, Professor Paul Wilson and myself formed the
Voltaire Institute.

Believing in the crucial importance to a liberal democracy of free speech and freedom of
inquiry, one of the aims of the Voltaire Institute is to staunchly defend the rights of
individuals and groups, in this country and overseas, to promulgate ideas no matter
how unpopular.

Things change. Once it was politically correct to believe in witches, now it is politically
correct in not to believe in witches. Even in our own lifetime we have seen a number of
scientific and intellectual orthodoxies come and go.

I am passionate about many things – about the destructive effect of alcoholism and other
forms of drug addiction about the curse of large-scale structural unemployment, about
flogging off our pristine wilderness areas overseas. But of all things I am passionate
about the free flow of ideas and doing what I can to ensure that research, criticism,
inquiry and utterance on any topic, however controversial, using speech-forms no
matter how unpopular, should not be impeded.

From this perspective aborting ideas is a much worse crime than aborting foetuses.

This article by Ross Fitzgerald was originally published in Overland No.134, Autumn 1994



One comment

  1. The depth of free speech is directly co-related with the value and ability of it to threaten the society or organisation in which it is stated.
    If in what you say, has little or no threat to any establishment then you can speak your mind, but if it so called “rocks the boat ” then you soon discover that there is nothing free about free speech.