Free speech and state power

Free speech and state power

October 27, 2014

During my first sitting week in the Senate, I was waiting in line for a daily ritual known as the door-stop – where politicians talk to the media before entering the parliament for their day’s work.

The government senator before me kindly mentioned how much he had enjoyed my first speech that I had made the previous afternoon. One journalist took it upon herself to ask: “Do you ever wish that you were able to say whatever you want, just like Senator Leyonhjelm does?”

The senator replied that in some ways he did, but that there were advantages to belonging to a major party that made up for it. I would argue there is nothing that makes up for the loss of free speech.

One of the perks of being a senator is the range of free character assessments I receive. These come in the form of phone calls, emails, signed and anonymous letters, and on tweets and blog comments shared with thousands of people.

I choose not to be offended. I also choose not to identify as a victim. I understand that the same rights that make it possible for people to speak freely about me and my policies are the same rights I use to speak about them and their policies.

It is in the area of interpretation where it can get messy. In the Australian vernacular, being called a bastard can be intended as a serious insult, a minor criticism or a term of endearment, yet someone may find the term offensive irrespective of the intent. Nobody can say with certainty how a comment might be received.

Laws limiting racist speech are not really about speech at all, but are intended to prevent unacceptable thoughts. To believe our thoughts can be regulated by restricting our speech is delusional. No law will stop people from thinking things we disagree with, and banning their expression will only deny civilized public debate and encourage the use of non-traditional media.

The best way to combat opinions you don’t like is to have them debated, not stowed in some shady corner of the internet or taken into the courtroom.

I am very disappointed that the government has dropped its plan to repeal 18C under the guise of national unity. If we want to live in a free society, we should take the advice of Chopper Read and harden up. There are many pressing issues for our governments and courts, but the question of who has had their feelings hurt is not one of them.

I am alarmed that the government has introduced national security legislation that creates an offence of disclosing information about ASIO activities. This could potentially lead to the bulk of ASIO operations being classed as special intelligence operations and would make it an offence for journalists to report on information they receive from whistleblowers. In effect, they give ASIO immunity. If the role of ASIO is to serve the public, not the role of the public to serve ASIO, this should not be accepted.

The government is now saying it will also force internet service providers to store the internet communications of their customers. We are all to be treated as potential criminals in waiting, with the evidence to be held in case it is needed.

This is not acceptable. In a liberal democracy in which the government serves the people, free speech must be the default option with every encroachment subject to strict justification. Agencies such as ASIO must never given be the benefit of the doubt.

Any loss of free speech, whether through 18C or national security legislation, cannot remain unchallenged. I will be seeking to convince my Labor and fellow crossbench senators to resist the temptation to think something else makes up for it.