I got involved in a few fiery discussions over the weekend because I wrote this brief blog post defending Andrew Bolt’s right to free speech in the current racial vilification case. So although a great deal has already been said on all sides, I thought it was worth expanding the arguments.
Those who disagree with me have several points. I will try to counter them in turn.
1. Andrew Bolt often goes too far, (quote example of choice) He deserves to be taught a lesson.
This one is easy to counter. This case is not about whether or not Andrew Bolt is a nice person or a good columnist. It is about the limits of freedom of speech. Clearly, the case is likely to go to the High Court, and set an important precedent, which we will all have to live with for decades. If that precedent is to the effect that we must not offend people when talking about race, then all those involve in publishing and reading will rue the day.
2. Freedom of speech is not an absolute right. There are limits. Bolt stepped over the line.
Of course, freedom of speech is not absolute, and there are limits. For example, we have the laws of defamation,and censorship, and there are other laws that deal with things such as incitement to violence.
But the law of defamation does not prevent publication. It allows those who have been defamed to seek compensation.
The laws of censorship are carefully implemented, and only material deemed directly harmful is restricted.
In the current case, the plaintiffs want to prevent Bolt or the Herald Sun from publishing certain kinds of material. This is more worrying than merely seeking compensation for publication that has already occurred.
Opinions will vary on where the line should be drawn on freedom of speech, given that it is not an absolute right. But consider that the opinions Bolt expressed, and the doubts he aired about what constitutes Aboriginality, are not unique or confined to him.
I regard what Bolt wrote as offensive and wrong-headed, but it is not some uniquely and unusually obnoxious form of debate. You’ll find the same things said in most pubs. The question of who is an Aborigine is also a topic of concern within the indigenous community.
We should worry if we are going to start prohibiting people from publishing views that, while we strongly disagree with them, are common in the wider society.
The other example people raise is that of Alan Jones, and his broadcasts in the lead-up to the Cronulla riots. But Jones could be accused of inciting violence, which Bolt certainly did not do. The cases are different.
3. Yes, but Bolt is not just some red-neck in a pub. He is a columnist with the might of News Limited behind him and a massive audience. He should be made to adhere to higher standards, and should take more responsibility than the average person in the street.
This amounts to an argument that mainstream media should be less free in what they say than ordinary folk. It raises a whole raft of new questions about at what stage we expect people to adhere to these higher standards.
And where are these allegedly higher ethical standards practised by the mainstream media? We have seen recently in the YouTube bullying story how a story can be sucked from social media into mainstream media, with no apparent extra responsibility displayed by the professional players.
Journalists might like to argue that’s what divides them from mere bloggers, but let’s face it. They are arguing in the face of the evidence.
We live in an age where anybody with a basic level of computer literacy can publish to the world. On blogs, Facebook and Twitter, views more objectionable than Bolt’s are published all the time. Just like in the pub, on social media you can choose the company you keep and the debates you engage in.
It is deeply unappealing, of course, to see News Limited regularly beating up on bloggers and other ordinary citizens who criticise it. There is a huge imbalance of power.
But you can’t start awarding different rights of freedom of speech to different kinds of publishers without getting into very dangerous waters indeed.
Relevant to this point is that the recently passed Shield Laws give bloggers and tweeters exactly the same rights to protect their sources as professional journalists. Anybody involved in the production of news, regardless of where they work, can seek to avoid a source being identified. This seems to me to be the only sensible approach.
And if we did award different rights to freedom of speech to bloggers such as Bolt, and bloggers such as Grog’s Gamut, at what stage would we expect the limits to begin to apply to ordinary citizens? Would it be a matter of numbers of readers? Or influence? And how do we propose to measure such things?
It would be a strange law that said the minute you become influential, you are less free in what you say.
For all of these reasons, I think we have to hope that Bolt wins his case. Any other result would be even more obnoxious than he is.
*As this matter is still before court, Crikey is not allowing comments on this article. If you wish to respond email [email protected].