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There’s no such thing as a free lunch, and free speech is looking pretty dubious too

Now, I’d like to start by condemning violence as a solution to anything and also by supporting free speech. I thought about showing my support for free speech by starting with a really sexist joke or a link to one of Larry Pickering’s cartoons, but I decided against because I thought it might offend people to the extent that they reacted emotionally and didn’t understand the point I was trying to make.

Over the past few days, “free speech” is a term that’s been cropping up in the media quite a bit and it’s easy to become confused when people bandy round words with more than one meaning – like “free”. It’s even harder to have a sensible discussion when the whole concept of something is never clearly articulated by most of the people using it.

In various articles, letters, comments and opinion pieces I’ve read about the French killings, I notice that many people see them as being an “attack on free speech”. I’ve even read a letter to the editor which argued that we must now protect free speech by clamping down on all the preachers of hate, which struck me as slightly hypocritical.

Free speech is a bit like motherhood. Most people are in favour of it when refering to one’s own mother, but when it applies to other mothers or potential mothers, the same people will argue that they shouldn’t be allowed to breed.

Andrew Bolt, of course, springs to mind with his front page complaints about his free speech being stifled, while he writes articles complaining about such things as The Festival of Dangerious Ideas considering the question “Are Honour Killings Justified?” (It didn’t say that they were, by the way, it was just examining the topic, but it was cancelled.

When the National Gallery of Victoria exhibited Serrano’s “Piss Christ” – a photograph of a crucifix developed in a cup of the artist’s urine – it created some controversy. Dr George Pell launched court action and tried, unsuccessfully, to have the work removed, citing laws against blasphemy. While this was occuring, the gallery was receiving threats from anonymous sources. The work was eventually removed after somebody attacked with a hammer.

At least, with Andrew Bolt and Dr Pell, we’re still talking about actual free speech, but I don’t see the killings in France nor the attacks with the hammer as being anything to do with free speech really. The cartoonists were not shut down by a repressive restriction on free speech by a censoring government or legal procedures; they were viciously murdered by assassins who had no regard for the law.

If I tell you that you have an ugly face or walk down the street expressing my free speech with comments like “I have more money in my pocket than you’ll ever have, you lazy welfare cheats” at random people, or go to a Ku Klux Klan rally with an “I love Obama” t-shirt, I am perfectly within my rights. The question is not one of free speech, because, while society will support my right to free speech, in these examples, it can only punish those who thought to take matters into their own hands. So I need to ask myself: What did I hope to achieve and was it worth the risk?

The editors at Charlie Hedbo thought so, and I applaud their bravery in sticking by their convinctions.

But I find it troubling that so many people are supporting the right to “free speech” without actually asking what Charlie Hedbo was hoping to achieve. If you think you know, that’s great. But if not, ask yourself, would you feel the same way, if we were taking about a group which you felt were publishing articles or cartoons that you felt contained deliberate distortions or lies? What if the group were supporting genocide or racism? Would you be saying that you didn’t support the actions of the killers but you could understand why they did it? Or would you be hash-tagging “I am National Rifle Association” just to show your support for free speech?


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  1. Silvana Rechichi

    Thank you for article Rossleigh, below is what I posted on my Facebook page which I wanted to share with you…it is not an elegant piece of writing but it comes from my heart.

    “Following on from the tragic events of the last days , there is a lot being said and written about “Freedom of thought, expression and speech” with which I agree and support wholheartedly, don’t get me wrong, I grieve and share my repugnance for the loss of so many lives in the bloody attack in Paris.
    But, let me say this: ‘freedom of thought, expression and speech” come with a great and conscious responsability on how we use this inalienable right we call “freedom”.
    It is not enough to say: “My freedom of speech is an inalienable right of mine” and then use this freedom to spout and draw offence, show disdain and much more towards another person, groups of people, insititutions, religions and more; each and everyone of us is master of his or her own destiny, every action of ours has an equal reaction which can unleash, for some, a tragic and bloody result, the events in Paris can attest to this.
    Satire, when it is used in an intelligent fashion could be a decisive weapon against the insjustices and the skewed politics and religions of this world however, when it is simply used deliberately to provoke the pure and unadulterated human wickedness found in the heart of each and everyone of us, it can no longer be defined as “Freedom” but “Arrogance and Abuse”

  2. Jeanette

    I am all for free speech, however I believe that satire regarding religion or nationality should be tempered taking into account that these topics are very personal and can offend in such a manner that can become an unwanted memory. When the Life of Brian was released many years ago as a practicing Christian I was deeply offended to the point that I refused to watch anything on tv with John Clease and ….Palin for many years. Over the years there has been a lot of maligning of Jesus, did he really exist, was he married, virgin birth etc. Since 9/11 the Islamic faith has become the target for terrible misconceptions and commentary and I do not like this direction. Ordinary people going about their daily lives the same concerns of family, health, work etc. This does nothing to help those people who feel marginalised already, rather it compounds the feeling of desperation. Until there is an attitude change I can see no improvement, rather a further increase in violence.

  3. Goran

    Thank you Rossleigh. Couldn’t agree more with your comments.
    Just as an aside and a reminder of how hypocritical the “defenders of freedom of speech” often are I would like those of us who remember NATO attack on Serbia and Montenegro in 1999 to recall how many of those “righteous preachers” were outraged by the deliberate targeting and killing of 16 journalists in Belgrade. Do you remember the outrage? No? Me neither.
    And, finally, just a thought. Isn’t it strange how the world (and by “world” I mean the USA) needs a villain we must fear and hate? Used to be communism. These days it’s islam. And they “threaten” our way of life therefore we must destroy them in order to maintain our “freedom and democracy”. Really?

  4. philgorman2014

    Satire – a two-edged sword

    Freedom of speech and expression: precious liberties that are open to interpretation. This is no simple matter. It can’t be reduced to slogans. To consider these freedoms is to uncover more questions than answers. We need to justify our use of satire as much as any other form of expression.

    Most reasonable people seem to agree that if these rights are used to bully, hurt, harm, or inspire violence against others it is being abused. Satire used to mock, defy and discomfit bullies, bigots and the over-mighty is surely justified. Satire used to bully others surely isn’t. The law rightly has a say in this. But ultimately the argument boils down to questions of intent, effect, consequences and judgement.

    Is satire justifiable when it offends people’s belief systems? Yes – probably, as satire is always going to offend someone so why should ideologues or the religious be spared?

    If fear of retribution stifles satire or any other form of justifiable criticism then our whole notion of liberty is threatened. Can we expect people to risk their children’s lives to make a pointed joke. There is no doubting the bravery of the satirists and cartoonists who set out to mock sacred cows, the gods, the Pope or Muhammad, but their wisdom could be open to question. Should sleeping sacred cows be left to lie? Is the game worth the candle? If it isn’t are we giving in to pre-enlightenment extremism and cultural imperialism?

    So if we wish to defend our liberties we have to be prepared to defend those who push the boundaries, provided they comply with our equally important notions of fairness.

    The only good reason to be spare the lash of the tongue or pen then has to be a matter of judgement about any pain likely to be inflicted on the innocent or defenceless. It becomes a matter of sensibilities rather than just enjoying clever, hairy-chested mockery.

  5. John Kelly

    If religious groups, churches and the like were to practice their beliefs without trying to lobby and influence others, that would be reason enough to let them be. But that is not what we have in secular society. Today, religious groups and their lobbyists not only work to change the way we think, but they gain concessions from governments in taxation and grants that are clearly unconstitutional. In other words, they are scamming and proselytising with impunity. Therefore, satire and parody are as legitimate when applied to them as they would anywhere else. We should remember that religion is based on unproven theory. There is no evidence a God exists. Therefore, what can be claimed without evidence can be discarded without evidence and faith is not the highway to truth but an excuse to travel a different path. Freedom of speech must be defended against those who would attempt to subvert it by criminal means. Those very criminals use religion to exercise their own influence and power that would, if we let them, see freedom of speech disappear altogether.

  6. Jim from Geelong

    These murders are vile and quite rightly have left everyone feeling vulnerable, defiant and sad. The printing and re-printing of the Danish cartoons is, has been and I daresay will be an irresponsible act of throwing fuel on flames. As an atheist I’m no fan of any religion but I do realise that we all have to get along. Now these cartoonists are seen as martyrs and there is more division in an already very divided and ugly situation. If I were religious I’d pray for us.

  7. diannaart

    Freedom of speech or freedom to abuse?

    I won’t bother asking George Brandis.

    Protesting against perceived abuse by murder? Not acceptable, ever.

  8. Dame-Alison White

    Charlie Hebdon are anti-establishment. They ridicule any edifice that imposes it’s will upon individuals. The Christians have had more than a bollocking from them than the Muslims. I don’t like the work of Pickering – but, I just don’t look at his stuff any more. Surely a rational person wouldn’t think it was appropriate to kill someone over a drawing. Hitler could have spent his entire life expousing the values of Nazism – but until he put it into practice he didn’t trespass on the rights of others.

    Have you seen any of the abhorrent cartoons that come from Muslim countries re Jews and Westerners? They are just as bad as anything that Charlie Hebdon published.

  9. Florence nee Fedup

    I have real problems with the concept of free speech if it includes the right to inflame violence. That seems to be what many are saying.

    I am happier with the concept that all rights come parcelled with social responsibility.

    Yes, we all have rights, but we also have obligations. Yes, a duty to create a civil society.

    No ones rights can ever override the right s of others.

  10. lizzieconnor

    I’ve just watched ‘The Great Australian Race Riot’ on SBS On Demand, and I really urge anyone who hasn’t yet seen it to watch it (it’s available until Jan 18). From my point of view, this is Australian history as it should be, retelling events that offer a compelling perspective on today’s racial/religious/political tensions. It’s certainly not an objective account, but it does make you think! Well, it made me think anyway.

  11. mark delmege

    Yes Goran the presentation of the war(s) in the former Yugoslavia by our media and in particular the ABC was abysmal and deliberately misleading as have all conflicts since. Free speech is one thing but propaganda another and sometimes its hard to differentiate. Maybe by now you will have seen the disgusting Charlie Hedbo cartoons on Kosovo.

    Of course humour and cartoons should be given some space to offend – a little (or a lot) offence is a good thing if it shakes up our preconceptions and challenges our world view – and there is nothing like a nice fat joint with some quality green to help us in that regard.

    And who is to say where the line should be drawn? All the same there is good taste and purpose and then there is downright maliciousness and judging intent (and taste) can be equally problematic.

  12. Keitha Granville

    It always depends on any one person’s point of view doesn’t it. Those who are total atheists will see nothing at all worng with any satire or lampoon or cartooning of any religion – but as soon as you are a follower/ believer of one you are going to be offended if someone takes the mickey, whatever the point they are trying to make.
    I do think there IS a fine line bewteen good satire, fair goes cartooning / lampooning and offensive / “blasphemous” (if you like) material. That’s not “freedom of speech” that’s just plain abuse, hate speech, offense, whatever and should be ignored and not published.

  13. mark delmege

    Yes Keitha maybe after the latest we will be more sensitive

  14. mars08

    How odd that whistle-blowers are so often demonised (and prosecuted) for trying to use their freedom of speech… Remember them? They’re the ones speaking out about government abuses and corruption…

  15. Jexpat


    There is perhaps no other issue that ignites such consummate hypocrisy as “free speech,” although matters pertaining to tribalism & religious dogma certainly come close.

    Hence we have a twofer here.

  16. gangey1959

    What a week it has been. At some additional cost of life the murdering bastards in France have been captured. (And “Tried and executed under rule 303” to quote Edward Woodward in Breaker Morant) Freedom of speech is a strange thing. We all expect to be able to say what ever we want to, when ever we feel the need to say it, and damn the consequences. Sadly for us, our neighbors have exactly the same expectations, which is where the problems begin, Just look at all of the 70+ perfectly rational responses to a perfectly rational piece of writing on Religion here from Laetitia McQuade on Jan 9.
    Personally, I agree with Florence nee Fedup above where she says “No ones rights can ever override the rights of others”
    I think that is the really important point.
    The other thing is a measured response.
    When a strange bloke comes to your political rally wearing an “I’m with Stupid” shirt, you dont have him arrested, you go to Kmart and get some more shirts and a texta and do your own that say “No he’s not, he’s a dickhead.” Especially here in Australia, where taking the piss is an artform.

  17. mark delmege

    And if this was a CIA operation what would you say then?

  18. eli nes

    Funny??? that the charlies and the killers are considered martyrs?
    Speech in Australia is free depending on wealth, parliamentary privilege or insurance. With the fragile safety net of 18C providing the only protection for those outside the loop.

  19. Florence nee Fedup

    If the version of freedom of speech that many put forwarded, include defending Pickering and the hate he spreads, sorry, I cannot support it. Cannot support Pickering or his ilk.

  20. diannaart

    Florence nee Fedup

    Pickering does not exercise his right and responsibility to free speech – all he does is abuse. He is, demonstrably, a bully.

    Rights are not free – only fools and bullies believe otherwise.

    Rights are always attached to consequences and responsibilities. This is what is meant by “no such thing as a free lunch”.

  21. kat

    the price of an audience is criticism. criticism does not involve being shot. i get that people can be more passionate about their religion than even their footy team – still doesn’t give them the right to visit violence on the hecklers and sledgers.

  22. mark delmege

    Of course this sort of violence is wrong. But what is not being said is that these ‘terrorists’ honed their skills fighting for empire in wars against people and countries not bowed to Wall Street. They were useful killers in Syria or Libya or Bosnia, Chechnya, Ukraine and Afghanistan and encouraged armed and trained and supported in every meaningful way. They are a product of – and in particular – American foreign policy. Maybe not this month or last month but over time they have been used to serve a role – and if guilt is to be apportioned history can not be ignored. And if lessons are to be leaned this must be acknowledged.

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