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10. Freedom of expression: conclusion


The number of banned books is too long to contemplate. In the vast majority of cases, I believe in free speech.

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;

• cause for criminal prosecution (as in the Holocaust Denial laws, or the French children’s literature laws);

• cause for civil suits such as libel and defamation, especially where severe tests are imposed);

• banned, (as in Lady Chatterley’s Lover);

• 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 “nigger” with “slave”);

• inhibited by heavy-handed application of anti-discrimination and race relations laws;

• prevented or punished by blasphemy laws; or

• discouraged by direct action and attack, (as distinct from robust debate) such as those directed against David Irving, Deepat Mehta’s films and the atheists’ billboard.

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

It is both a strength and weakness of human consciousness that we can conceptualise things which don’t exist. “Honour” is one example. Your brother is going to murder you because you have impugned the family honour. You are going to be jailed or flogged because you have blasphemed against God. What are these words, that represent things that don’t have any tangible reference, and arguably don’t exist? Sometimes when free speech offends against these concepts, the reaction is greater than when concrete harm is caused. 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?

Kaye Hargreaves (email:  kh@netspace.net.au)

Kaye Hargreaves is a feminist and author with a long history of involvement in issues related to violence against women and women’s rights in the workforce. She has a Law degree and is passionate about international human rights.

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