Free speech, Nazis and blurry lines.

The tides are turning in the free speech debate, but are contrarian Australians soon to face speech restriction and censorship?

Image from Cornell University

From campus protests to the US capitol riot, it is apparent that free speech is one of the most heavily debated topics today. Many on the left are pushing new legislation they have labelled “Hate speech laws”, which would allow the government to restrict speech that they deem ‘offensive’. However, drawing the line between what should and shouldn’t be said is a difficult task.

In 2017, National Rugby League player Israel Folau took to his Instagram and posted “Homosexuals, hell awaits you. Repent, only Jesus saves you.”. Folau received nationwide criticism for his homophobic views and was removed from his rugby team. For conservatives, Folau quickly became a free speech martyr and a paradigm of contrarian views being suppressed. However, supporters of Folau’s removal pointed out that the National Rugby League are a private enterprise, thus they have the power to decide what happens to Folau. Even in the US, the first amendment only protects free speech in public sectors of society. Although this argument is valid, the fundamental question remains: Should the government have the ability to censor speech that offends?

Many ‘intellectuals’, including Jordan Peterson and Sam Harris, don’t believe so. In 2017, Peterson objected to the implementation of Bill C-16 into Canadian legislation. This bill would make speech that offends someone’s religion, sexual orientation, gender identity, age and race illegal. Peterson’s argument centred around the required use of a person’s preferred pronouns. Although it is easier to see why Nazi speech should be illegal, as many of their arguments are factually false, stating that a transgender woman is a biological male is true, yet it could fall under what Bill C-16 outlines is illegal if this transgender woman is offended.

Sam Harris, another free speech advocate, believes that even Nazis should have the ability to speak freely. His argument is that once lines begin being drawn distinguishing between free speech and hate speech, the public has given the power to the government, which can extend such lines. If the government has the legislative power to suppress a Nazi’s views, why not further extend this ban to white supremacist and transphobes. Harris believes that this line will be extended into absurdity, which is an accurate hypothesis. Bill C-16 was passed into Canadian legislation on 17 June 2017, making it illegal to make a factually true statement. Canada’s prime minister at the time was Justin Trudeau, unsurprisingly a liberal. The power granted to him by this bill has allowed Trudeau to pick and choose what he defines as hate speech according to his political agenda. Inevitably, Trudeau and other liberal leaders will further restrict contrarian voices, specifically conservatives, on more nuanced topics such as abortion and the death penalty.

Harris also makes the point that defining hate speech as “speech that offends” is problematic. By Canadian laws, a radical Islamist should have the right to be offended at a woman wearing revealing clothing, thus making the actions of this woman illegal. Bill C-16 also states that religious beliefs must be respected, further blurring the lines and creating confusion on legal grounds. This definition of hate speech, where if an action offends anyone it is illegal, is illogical and would not follow a utilitarianist model.

Australia passed a very similar bill in 2001 called the Racial and Religious Tolerance Act. This bill restricts racial vilification, which is defined as ridiculing one’s religious beliefs and ethnic origin. Again, Harris’ point stands. Many radical Christians receive public harassment for stating a religious belief, yet the government rarely seems to crack down on such ‘hate speech’ if it is a conservative on the receiving end. Again, we see that the majority in society, who are liberals, can pick and choose who to protect and censor according to their political agenda. What is stopping these government bodies from extending what they define as hate speech?

Many on the left are beginning to move away from this concept and have created a new rule when distinguishing hate speech from free speech. Their definition is ‘speech that the majority of society deems offensive’. Brenden O’Neil, an activist against cancel culture, states that a basic look at human history would show that the majority’s opinion is certainly never the best for society. In an address to the Oxford Onion, he states that in our past, the majority of people believed that homosexuals are demons and that black people are subhuman. However, as science disproved such claims, opinions were swayed. Scientific truth is, and always will be, the correct way to distinguish between true or false.

Although the benefits of free speech are clear, it certainly has its dark side. Peterson and O’Neil both believe that fake news should also be protected, which is a position much harder to defend, especially in light of the capitol riots. Many journalists argue that Trump’s comments on Twitter, including “they are trying to steal the election”, helped incite the events that occurred on 6 January. It is evident that those in power have great influence with the words they say, and that when a figure in power states something that is factually false, he is misleading the public. If in our history logic and science has been the fundamental grounds on which we decide whether something is right or wrong, why not ensure that the majority of society understands what is scientifically true and false?

This concept has prompted a new and refined definition of what ‘hate speech’ should be defined as. Currently, speech that directly insights violence, meaning speech that specifies who, where and at what time a person plans to hurt another, is unprotected by the first amendment. New movements are pushing for fake news to also be unprotected by the government. Although most political topics are nuanced and do not have a clear right or wrong, many of Trump’s tweets were factually incorrect, such as his suggestion to “Inject disinfectant” to cure COVID-19. If the government could reduce the number of lies and false information in the world, we would have a better functioning society and may reduce political polarisation.

Work needs to be done in the current free speech climate. Australia’s Racial and Religious Tolerance Act is a dangerous piece of legislation. We have now given the government power to choose what they consider is hate speech, which is most likely to be swayed by political agendas. Australia is inevitably going to encounter a Bill C-16, where we can either choose to pass it and prevent science and truth from being the grounds on which we decide what is right or wrong, or we can remove it and the racial and religious tolerance act from Australian legislation, removing this power from the government and helping to prosper new and important ideas. We can freely debate those we disagree with instead of censoring them.

An independent journalist based in Victoria. I write political articles on major topics and attempt to take a philosophical approach