Be careful what you wish for on free speech

There’s a nice story at Crikey today by Emily Watkins on Aboriginal Victoria and its unfortunate advertising campaign. [Actually it looks as if Mumbrella had the story first.]

The state government office has got a campaign going called “Deadly Questions”, created by agency Clemenger BBDO, with posters designed to stimulate discussion on some possibly uncomfortable topics around indigenous affairs. You might have seen some of them at Spencer Street station, among other places.

But as Watkins reveals, when they tried to book billboard space through APN Outdoor, they were told that two of the questions were potentially in breach of the Advertising Standards Bureau’s code of ethics. Apparently the offending questions were “Why can’t Aboriginal people just get over the past?” and “Why should I apologise to Aboriginal people for something I didn’t do?”

Aboriginal Victoria, to its credit, was not deterred, and has sought other outlets: according to the Guardian, JC Decaux has agreed to run the ads. An Aboriginal Victoria statement said “We understand that some of the questions asked by the public — and that we are repeating in the campaign — are provocative, but that’s the point. To have an open discussion we need to acknowledge that some ugly viewpoints exist.”

Now, I’m all in favor of the advertising industry having standards and doing all it can on a voluntary basis to eliminate racist or otherwise objectionable material. (Although since a large part of the industry is effectively a conspiracy to defraud consumers, any rigorous code of ethics might have drastic consequences.)

But this is a good example of how restrictions on speech tend to work. Members of oppressed groups embrace them in the hope that they will prevent vilification, but they don’t actually change the nature of society.

Laws, including codes of ethics and the like, mostly work in the interests of the rich and powerful. The marginalised don’t get much of a look in. If they had enough power to get those things interpreted and enforced their way, they probably wouldn’t need them in the first place.

I wrote about this a number of years back in the context of a case on the Western Australian goldfields: the state government enacted racial vilification laws in response to a spate of white supremacist attacks, but the first person charged was an Aboriginal girl who had allegedly kicked a white woman and called her a “white sl-t.”

The fact that this time around it’s actually a government body whose speech has been reined in – and of a government that’s hardly known for its interest in free speech – adds to the irony. But it doesn’t change the message. Liberation comes from fundamental change in attitudes, not from constraints on their expression.

Which is pretty much what Aboriginal Victoria was trying to say in the first place.



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