Yesterday, in defending his proposed sedition law, Attorney-General Philip Ruddock issued the following challenge: “If somebody wants to tell me … they are in favour of people being able to urge the use of force or violence to overthrow democratic institutions, let me hear from them.”

Well, allow me to put my hand up. That’s exactly what I’m in favour of. And it’s what I think anyone who believes in free speech should be in favour of.

Not that I am generally in favour of people exercising that right, and certainly not that I personally support violent overthrow of the government. But in a free society, those who do believe that it is justified should be free to avow that belief: to encourage or to “urge” violence, up to the point where it becomes incitement to a criminal act.

Incitement is more than just “urging,” it involves the immediate likelihood that a crime will result – in the American formulation, a “clear and present danger.” That is the point of Mill’s famous example:

An opinion that corn dealers are starvers of the poor, or that private property is robbery, ought to be unmolested when simply circulated through the press, but may justly incur punishment when delivered orally to an excited mob assembled before the house of a corn dealer” (On Liberty, ch. 3).

Mill, as usual, is right. But contrary to what the government would have us believe, its proposals are not designed to stop incitement – the law already does that. The sedition laws criminalise the expression of opinions, even when there is no prospect that anyone will act on them.

The attorney-general either doesn’t see the difference, or doesn’t care. But supporters of a free society should care.