Hehir on free speech

Liam Hehir writes:

Not long ago, an activist telephoned me about a column I had written poking fun at the Government for relying on so many “working groups”. It started with a demand to know why I had been allowed to publish it. The shrieking quickly progressed to obscenity and then to talk of unmentionable, violent things happening to myself and my wife. When I hung up, the activist continued trying to contacting me to resume the tirade.

I told the police about it. After a while, they sent me a letter saying they were on it. I’ve not heard anything since. As far as I know, nothing much has happened or will happen.

The growing intolerance to speech people disagree with.

Think about the phrase “fake news”. Today, you are most likely to hear it being used by United States President Donald Trump and his supporters to delegitimise opposition media. They have taken the concept, twisted it and made it their own.

Right now, the US government does not have the power to prohibit hate speech. But imagine if it did. How long do you think it would be before somebody like Trump started to apply the reasoning to his domestic opponents?

Those who want laws against so called hate speech will get a nasty surprise when those laws end up being used against them.

Those in favour of proscribing repellent views often fall back on the cliche that free speech laws do not protect “falsely shouting ‘fire’ in a crowded theatre”. In other words, some speech creates dangers to society. Accordingly, the state has a right, and indeed a duty, to protect its citizens from such speech.

Some people who use this metaphor know it originated with former US Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes. In my experience, however, very few of them are aware of the particular case that occasioned his analogy. They are usually surprised to learn it was made in the context of a judgment upholding the imprisonment of socialist activists who had distributed a pamphlet criticising conscription during World War I.

I did not know that. A good lesson from history.

In later years, that decision was largely overturned. In the intervening years, the US developed a more robust respect for the freedom of speech. New Zealand has developed a similar free-speech culture.

And the value of that culture isn’t that it protects racists and crackpots. It’s that it protects the humane and decent, who will not always hold the reins of power. The re-emergence of authoritarianism in continental Europe, where free-speech rights are less embedded, may well provide a warning here.

So should we accord liberal free speech rights to those with deplorable views? Yes. But it’s not to protect them from us. It’s to protect us from them.

Well said.

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