Freedom of Speech, Not Liability.

There’s often terms that are used so much that their true meaning gets confused, diluted or just plain forgotten. For the most part though these are colloquial expressions and you can derive the meaning of them from the context in which they are used as long as you have the same linguistic base like Latin. One of the most misunderstood terms is that of freedom of speech, I.E. the innate human right that decrees we are all allowed to freely speak our minds without interference from any other party. What people often mistake this for however, is that such a right absolves them from any responsibility for what they may say.

Whilst the legislation varies from nation to nation for the most part no one can legally stop you from saying anything to anyone. Australia’s stance on the freedom of speech is somewhat backward as the constitution makes no explicit references to either freedom of speech or expression, and in fact it was only recently (around 15 years or so) that the Australian High Court recognised that the constitution had an implied right of “freedom of political communication”, which only protects individuals from the government. This can be blamed for the most part on the lack of any kind of freedom of speech case being brought before the courts that didn’t have some kind of political bent and possibly the lack of a document similar to the United States Bill of Rights (which funnily enough is actually a limitation of government power, not an empowerment of the individual as many believe. Another common misconception). Despite this the freedom still seems to be enjoyed by Australians due to the lack of clear law either way.

Freedom of speech usually comes into the spotlight when a party is involved in a defamation case and for the most part the legislation is on the side of freedom of speech. If what you’re saying is true (or in fact, you believed it was true at the time) then you have a defence against any litigation brought before you. If however you were knowingly spouting tripe then you can be held accountable for your actions. This doesn’t stop people and corporations from using litigation as a means of trying to silence people although the whistle-blower legislation provides protection for some, but not all. In essence the situation in Australia is mixed due to the lack of clear definitions in legislation, but that doesn’t stop the principal from being almost identical to it’s American counterparts.

As usual my rant is directed mostly at the uniformed masses that seem to patrol the Internet these days. I’ve been through countless online mediums where the term freedom of speech is trotted out as a defence against particularly reprehensible behaviour. You can say whatever you want, but we have the right to make you responsible for what you say. The waters are a little muddy on whether the anonymity of the Internet should be kept as barrier to trying to discover who is responsible for their comments¹ but we’ll soon have a definitive answer on that.

With freedom comes responsibilities and what I’ve said today can be applied to any human right. I’m reminded of when I was back in college and another student found out that it was a human right to sing at any time. He then proceeded to wax on how he could do this during final year exams. Doing this would have seen him removed from the exam leaving his rights, but not his dignity, in tact.

And now I can point anyone who gets it wrong to this page, saving me a good 5 minutes ranting at them about the differences between freedom and responsibility.

¹Personal opinion: it shouldn’t be. I don’t believe someone should be revealed publicly however their identity should be protected from released court documents. Of course this depends on the situation as someone saying “Person X loves eating zebras” is quite different from “Person X has weaponized plutonium in their backyard”.


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  1. Sure, but where do you draw the line. Obviously yelling ‘Fire’ in a crowded cinema is one thing, but what about hate crimes, what about simply offensive claims, what about political criticism that could incite (without directly encouraging) others towards violence. Take Holocust denial, Hanson’s racism, Piss christ, the Muhammad cartoons, fundamentalist islamic preachers, the catch the fire mob etc.
    My own view goes to J.S Mill, the famous English Liberal who argued “If all mankind minus one, were of one opinion and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person than he if he had the power would be justified in silencing mankind”. Mill famously argued that it was only harm to other that warrented government invasion of your personal liberty, but what speech actually causes harm as opposed to being against prevailing opinions (such as advocating for pedophilia) or being contentious (arguing muslims should be run out of the country/that muslims are justified in using violence to protect themselves given the domination inflicted on them both here and around the world).
    So where do you draw the line?

  2. If you’re referring to footnote about whether or not the anonymity granted by the Internet should never be lifted when trying to identify who’s responsible for such comments then I think your comments are a little off the mark. I was not advocating the censorship of such people, in fact I am of much the same view as you have put forth, more I believe that if you wish to exercise said right you have to be ready to deal with the consequences. Just because you posted it believing (foolishly) that a level of anonymity granted to you by the Internet is not a valid defence for avoiding the consequences of your actions.

    This is where it gets fuzzy, as we haven’t traditionally had a medium that can have such wide reach while at the same time remaining, for the most part, anonymous. The link I referred to demonstrates such a situation where someone is exercising their rights to free speech (fair) and then trying to avoid responsibility for exercising that freedom. Obviously they’re doing this to avoid litigation and having their identity publicly known to someone they’ve pissed off but the fact remains that they have a responsibility for their words, no matter how they were delivered.

  3. It’s more I didn’t quite know what you were saying in this post. 

    There is a strong case to be made for allowing some anonymous or highly protected free speech. For instance our politicians can not be sued for defamation for what is said within the parliament, journalists are protected by their organisation, and given significantly larger scope than say bloggers (though this is being tested and likely extended), and I think a reasonable case could be made that sometimes preserving the anonymity of the author is in the public interest despite being publicly dismissed. (It may be that the issue itself is not in the public interest, but merely having a debate about it is a public good in and of itself)

    As Mill noted (again in On Liberty), its not just the legal punishment but the ‘tyranny of the majority’ that is of concern (indeed this was more of a concern for Mill). As an atheist you should well know that your very freedom to identify as such, was earned by authors who deliberately chose to conceal their identity so as to enable them to publish on the subject. Likewise gay rights advocates in times past and current. Society is often ready to punish people for what they say, either legally or socially (from exclusion to violence) and sometimes things are so controversial they need to be said anonymously and that anonymity be protected. So the “Free Speech + Responsibility = fair”  equation you seem to be advocating isn’t quite so straightforward.

  4. Well the post is pretty clear, free speech != free of responsibility (with a major tangent into Australia’s current situation, which I just got drawn into by chance). I believe the issue you have is with the final comment I made on the subject of anonymity granted by the medium of the Internet.

    I agree with your first point and alluded to this in my footnote and comments. There are some cases when anonymity should be granted, as with the examples you produce. What I take issue with is predominately those who abuse the privileges granted to them by the Internet or other mediums of anonymous communication and then try to behind the (often misunderstood) principals of freedom of speech. In essence I’m attempting to dispel a common misconception about a concept, rather than trying to form hard and fast rules about what’s right and wrong.

    I can also appreciate that you can’t boil things like this down to a simple equation, and made reference to the fact that things like this are “fuzzy” since there’s no clear line in the sand, so to speak. In fact I’ve been mulling over the idea of a post about such blunt metrics for a while, I just haven’t found enough good material to post on (anecdotal posts are, I feel, amongst my worst).

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