Oh dear, it’s free speech again

Some consternation in Australia last week when Kristina Keneally, former premier of New South Wales and now Labor senator, called for a far-right activist to be denied a visa to enter the country for a “conservative” conference this week.

Now, someone like me, who believes in the free movement of people, can consistently condemn this suggestion. The fact that a person has repulsive political views – as the activist concerned, Raheem Kassam, evidently does – is not a legitimate reason to restrict their freedom to travel to Australia.

But Kassam’s supporters are caught in something of a bind. Opposition to the free movement of people is central to their platform. Kassam is coming here specifically to argue that countries like Australia should not admit Muslim immigrants – based, so he says, not on their racial category but on what they believe.

So you might think that his supporters would be cautious about playing the “free speech” card. But, of course, you’d be wrong.

For example, Andrew Wild, director of research at the Institute of Public Affairs (who is also speaking at the conference), complained that “Senator Keneally only wants to hear the views of those with whom she agrees. This is yet another example of how Labor wants to stifle free speech, open discussion and dialogue in Australia.”

No mention of the thousands of others who would no doubt like to come to Australia to have their views heard, but who are kept out by the restrictive immigration policies that these “conservatives” support.

As the debate on section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act demonstrated some years ago, the right’s defence of “free speech” is framed almost exclusively as a defence of those whose speech it agrees with. Controversial views expressed by their political opponents rarely get a mention as worthy of protection.

Perhaps I’m giving too much weight to the philosophical side of this, but it seems to me that the “conservatives” – including, of course, the even more badly-misnamed “libertarians”, in the shape of conference organiser Andrew Cooper, from the Liberal Democratic Party – are trapped in a downward spiral.

Aware, if only on a subconscious level, that they are no longer friends of freedom and cannot consistently defend controversial speech on the basis of abstract principle, they are driven more and more to defend speakers like Kassam on the basis of agreement with their ideas. And that in turn pulls them further away from liberalism and towards authoritarianism.

Long-term readers will be aware that I support the repeal of 18C, just as I support Kassam’s right to enter Australia to spout his poisonous nonsense. His hypocrisy, and that of his supporters, does not deprive him of the right to free speech.

Nor does the fact that he needs a visa in order to exercise it. As Russel Blackford put it a few years ago, in reference to another 18C-type case, “Generally speaking, we all have the legitimate expectation that we will be allowed to travel from one country to another for peaceful purposes such as tours involving lectures and media appearances.”

I don’t know whether Kassam is coming to try to make converts to his authoritarian worldview, or whether he’s just a provocateur who enjoys antagonising his opponents. If the latter, and perhaps to some extent the former, then Keneally and her colleagues may be just playing into his hands.

But it doesn’t fundamentally change the issue; freedom of speech doesn’t care about sincerity any more than it cares about truth. Kassam is entitled to be a provocateur.

The hard questions should be asked of those who are sponsoring Kassam, who are defending his views in the public arena and who think it appropriate to appear on a platform alongside him. Whether they see Kassam as a genuine ideological soulmate or just a fundraising opportunity, they should be called to account for it.

Freedom of speech includes defending the rights of hate merchants, but it does not demand that we endorse them. Those who do so from choice cannot claim immunity from criticism as a result.

One thought on “Oh dear, it’s free speech again

  1. A much more wholesale limitation on free speech is implied by the High Court’s recent decision in _Banerji v Comcare_, the practical effect of which (although of course these are not words the HIgh Court judges used) is that there is no effective legal restriction on the government’s power, whenever it feels so moved, to sack public servants for criticising and/or opposing the government (and/or its policies).

    Of course this decision has been (rightly) criticised, but the set of people doing the criticising is not an exact match with the set of people who are vocal about freedom of speech in other cases.

    Liked by 1 person

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