Freedom of speech: it’s probably not what you think it is

Over the last few weeks, there has been a lot of yelling on social media about free speech. It seems that “free speech” has become the defense du jour against criticism for speech which is offensive, bigoted or prejudiced.

Adapting a line from a favourite film: “You keep using that phrase. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

Freedom of speech is actually quite a tricky issue in Australia. I might eventually get around to doing a proper post on the subject, but for now, I’ll just outline the basics.


What freedom of speech is:

  1. The right to communicate ideas and opinions without fear of government retaliation, interference or censorship.
  2. The freedom to express yourself using a wide range of modes and media, including verbally, in writing, online or on social media, and in art, music and drama.
  3. A basic human right, under Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
  4. Subject to limitations imposed by individual jurisdictions in matters regarding national security and the public interest, the reputation and rights of individuals (eg against defamation and discrimination), and speech deemed offensive or threatening within the jurisdiction (eg hate speech).

And just in case it needs saying: in Australia, unlike in the USA, there is no express Constitutional right to freedom of speech.* And although Australia is a signatory to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, none of those rights, including the right to hold opinions without interference and the right to freedom of expression, have been enacted into local law.

What freedom of speech isn’t:

  1. The right not to be challenged, criticized, mocked or shamed. If you say something stupid, others are free to point out that it is stupid.
  2. The right to be protected from retaliation by non-governmental agencies or the general public. If you, as a business owner, post an offensive comment on Facebook, customers and suppliers are free to take their business elsewhere.
  3. The right to say what you want, how you want, wherever you want to say it. Being denied a particular platform to air your views is not a denial of your right to free speech. If someone blocks you on Twitter, they are not silencing you. If someone deletes your post on their FaceBook wall, they are not censoring you. Their feed is their space; you have no inalienable right of access to it; and you remain free to air your views in your own space.

Just remember: the right of free speech, like all rights, comes with corresponding duties and responsibilities. Freedom of speech does not mean freedom from consequence. If you are exercising your right to free speech, expect others to exercise theirs.

*There is an implied right of communication protected by the Constitution, but it is limited to political expression necessary for the effective operation of our system of government.


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