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Is free speech incompatible with the internet?

Crikey Sunday Read

Should the internet be a place where people are free to insult each other?


In a democracy people can speak their minds without fear or favour. But hate speech cuts deep. What's the right balance?

In Both Sides Now, author and ethicist Leslie Cannold presents two sides of an argument and then it’s over to you: what do you think is true, and what do you think Cannold really believes?

Today she asksas the yearly debate around Australia Day flares up in the press and on social media, do traditional ideas about free speech and censorship still make sense?

Yes case: free speech should be enforced everywhere, it’s the lifeblood of society. No case: hate speech creates hates — and besides, it’s high time privileged white males were called to account.


Former US Supreme Court justice William O Douglas coined the metaphor that has dominated public policy in Western democracies like Australia for centuries: “Publishers … bid for the minds of men in the marketplace of ideas.”

The concept is that citizens in a democracy have the freedom to speak their minds without fear or favour and the obligation to defend the right of others to do the same, even when those ideas are abhorrent. “I disapprove of what you say,” wrote Voltaire’s biographer, summarising the Enlightenment thinker’s view on the matter, “but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

Even where speech is ripe with falsehood and fallacies, the right remedy in all but the most urgent cases is not suppression but education. “The remedy to be applied is more speech,” wrote US Supreme Court justice Louis Brandeis in 1927, “not enforced silence.”

All well and good in the analogue era when access to an audience was restricted by those who knew the rules and enforced them, and when editors wouldn’t publish speech they deemed contravened the accepted limits on free expression.

Many also took the opportunity to abuse their power by denying access to perfectly lawful speech they wanted to deny oxygen.

But there’s no denying such oversight kept a lid on lies and slurs and, as society’s views evolved, more overt expressions of sexism, racism, homophobia and other unjust prejudices.

Now, on the internet, anything goes. Want to organise a coup? Recruit members for a new chapter of the Klan? Deny the Holocaust? The freedom to say whatever you want about whoever you want is virtually unlimited and doing great harm.

It’s also led to serious and unintended consequences, in particular the policing of speech by trolls and virtual mobs. They roam cyberspace like a vigilante army, making it their business to shout others down. Not just those whose speech is unlawful but anyone — journalist, writer, academic or activist — who expresses opinions or even discusses topics that make them antsy. When the swarm passes through, self-censorship and insincere apologies are left in its wake.

Can anyone think this is good for democracy?

The marketplace of information and ideas is the lifeblood of open societies. Yes, time-honoured limits on free speech must be enforced on every platform, including the net. But we cannot allow self-appointed moral guardians, however just their cause, to tell us what we can and cannot say in the 21st century’s public square.


Let’s cut the crap. There has never been a free marketplace of ideas for anyone but men — the same pale and stale men moaning about intolerance now.

Being called out for what you write, promote or say in public isn’t censorship. It’s accountability — long overdue accountability from those who have been ignored, silenced, stigmatised and insulted for so long.

If the politicians we elect won’t require it and the platforms that exploit us don’t provide it, who can blame us for pursuing justice on our own?

Whoever said “names will never hurt me” was an idiot. Hate speech hurts. It triggers and it retraumatises. Over time it can succeed in dehumanising some people in the eyes of others — as the Nazis did by repeated reference to Jews as vermin.

Only the US government, and old-fashioned liberals and libertarians, still cling to the myth that existing limits on speech are enough. In contrast, the United Nations and European Union draw a direct link between hate speech and atrocities such as genocide. They call for “a new generation of digital citizens” to be “empowered to recognise, reject and stand up to hate speech”.

We are those citizens. Far from trolling or bullying, we form immediate and informal alliances online to call out dangerous and hurtful words wherever we find them. Of course we focus most of our attention on high profile purveyors of hate. Their words matter most in stirring up what the UN calls alarming trends online of “growing xenophobia, racism and intolerance, violent misogyny, anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim hatred around the world”.

To suggest we’re bullies is as clueless and insensitive as privileging your right to say whatever you want over our need for acceptance, inclusion and safety.

Instead, 21st century citizens are obliged to advocate for internet regulation that makes everyone feel safe online and to avoid purveying lies, misinformation and hate speech themselves.

This won’t make the marketplace of ideas less crowded. Instead it will make it more inclusive as a new crop of diverse users feel safe to finally add their voice.


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