Do we really have freedom of expression?


Tintin in the Congo
Tintin in the Congo (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Freedom of Speech – an unrepresentative tour through controversial issues, by Kaye Hargreaves, March 2012

NOTE: This is just a summary. For the full text, you can either go to the drop-down menu orfollow these links:


The number of banned books is too long to contemplate, and includes many classics of English literature. In the vast majority of cases, I believe in free speech. I will give a brief account of the various ways, legal and otherwise, that freedom of speech can be attacked, illustrated by some of my favourite works.

Books, opinion pieces, live performances and other forms of expression should not be:

• cause for State action such as prohibiting a person’s entry into a country; Lenny Bruce, a stand-up comic who was convicted of obscenity, was banned from entering Australia and the UK; David Irving, Holocaust denier, was also banned from entering Australia;

• cause for criminal prosecution (as in the Holocaust Denial laws, which make Holocaust denial a criminal offence in Israel and many European countries; David Irving was sentenced to three years’ jail in Austria; or the French children’s literature laws, which criminalise the portrayal of cowardice and other moral failings in children’s literature);

• cause for civil suits such as libel and defamation, especially where severe tests are imposed); Simon Singh, British science writer, was sued for libel when he criticised chiropractors for claiming that they could cure ailments (such as ear infections in children) by means of spinal manipulation. At the time, the law required him to prove that his claims were factually correct. As a result of his case, English law now only requires that a statement be “fair comment”, a much easier standard to meet; Australian public intellectual, Prof. David Manne, has been sued for defamation by the Australian newspaper, despite its policy of defending itself through publication rather than legal action;

• banned, (as in Lady Chatterley’s Lover); as noted earlier, thousands of books have been banned throughout history, primarily for “obscenity’; in more recent times, racism, rather than obscenity, has been the cause of calls for works to be banned – for example, the racist and colonialist stereotyping of Africans in Tintin in the Congo; in some cases, there is a distinction made between “simple” racism, and “hate speech”, which is intended to cause harm or social upheaval;

• censored, (which used to be called “bowdlerised”) by having the dirty bits taken out,

• updated (as in Paul Robedaughter’s immortal classic “Elderly person water resource, that elderly person water resource, he or she just keeps rolling along”. [Not sure about “rolling along” – maybe offensive to all you squares out there];

• sanitised. (as in replacing the word  “nigger” with “slave” in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn); or the “de-nazification of Leni Riefenstahl’s Nazi propaganda film, Triumph of the Will;

• censored by voluntary codes, such as that proposed by Harvard law School, following the outcry about the publication of the book Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word.;

• inhibited by heavy-handed application of anti-discrimination and race relations laws; for example, comments by Andrew Bolt, about light-skinned indigenous people, which arguably fell into the category of fair comment, were removed from the internet following a Federal Court case;

• prevented or punished by blasphemy laws; for example many countries, both Islamic and Christian, have laws criminalizing blasphemy, sometimes, in the case of countries under Islamic law,  even punishable by death or flogging; blasphemy is no longer an offence in Australia, and has only recently been repealed in the UK; or

• discouraged by direct action and attack, (as distinct from robust debate) such as those directed against David Irving (physical attacks on people attending his lecture), Deepat Mehta’s films (burning down film sets and cinemas); and the atheists’ billboard in the US, protesting about “The Year of the Bible” by showing a slave, with the quotation from the Bible saying “Slaves, Obey Your Masters”, which had to be taken down.

However, there is a grey area, where words merge into deeds, and some forms of expression can do harm.

I think that causing offence in these cases should not be punishable by law. But there may be a line to draw where words cause tangible harm. I leave you with the thought: is this a valid distinction, and if so, where should the line be drawn?

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