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”.

About the Author

David Klemke

David is an avid gamer and technology enthusiast in Australia. He got his first taste for both of those passions when his father, a radio engineer from the University of Melbourne, gave him an old DOS box to play games on.

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