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Speech - an intermediate freedom

A recent topic of controversy in Victoria (my home state) has been Bracks' anti-villification laws. Opponents of it allege a crippling effect on freedom of speech, while proponents of it claim that it promotes an open, tolerant society.

Both positions are, of course, nonsense. It will not affect tolerance in society for the simple reason that this cannot be done by restrictions. A tolerant society can only be brought about through a respect for others' differences, which requires education.

It will not cripple free speech though. The reason is that you are still entitled to make a fair, balanced comment on any issue you like. The legislation under discussion simply places an onus not to slander a religion in a way which could be detrimental to its adherents. Quoting passages from scriptures out of context is not a fair balanced comment, and, as such, needs to be done with great caution and reservation.

And, for that matter, if someone is, say, selling anti-semitic books, be they forgeries which claim that Jews do something they don't do, or whatever, I would like some legal avenue to stop this. And I would like the book thrown at them...

I will ignore questions of what actually constitutes speech for it be free otherwise, and, for the moment, we will just take it as any words or ideas which are transmitted or broadcast.

I will also ignore questions on whether it does, indeed exist, and whether an inequitably controlled media and access to broadcasting is also an affront to free speech.

But the real question needs to be:

How important is free speech?

The answer has to be, reasonably important, but not an absolute. Justice shoud be an absolute. Security should be an absolute. Speech should be valued, and not restricted unnecessarily but not absolute.

You are generally not permitted to make untrue and unfair comments about an individual where doing so would cause a material damage. This is because to do so would be unjust. Taking the definition of speech as earlier, your speech is being restricted so that people cannot have their reputations tarnished unjustly.

The Government censors various pieces of knowledge which, if broadcast, may affect the security of its citizens. While I do believe that ALL Australian Governments go to far in what they do not release to the public, if disclosure would compromise security, security comes first. Army movements, for example, should not be publicly disclosed.

A further example occurred a few years ago. There had been some fairly gruesome murders in a South Australian town near Adelaide. The judge ordered that the details be suppressed so that they could not be broadcast in South Australia. There was the usual cry from civil libertarians that this was an affront to free speech. But, ultimately, if the judge believed that having the details broadcast would decrease the chance of a just outcome of the trial, then the broadcast must be suppressed until after the trial.

Finally, if allowing racial or religious villification is deemed to significantly increase the likelihood of a violent attack on a group or individual, then it should be forbidden. The affront to free speech is far more tolerable than exposing groups to fear of attack.

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