To publish or not to publish? The media’s free-speech dilemmas in a world of division, violence and extremism



AAP/AP/ John Nacion/STAR MAX/IPx

Denis Muller, University of Melbourne

Terrorism, political extremism, Donald Trump, social media and the phenomenon of “cancel culture” are confronting journalists with a range of agonising free-speech dilemmas to which there are no easy answers.

Do they allow a president of the United States to use their platforms to falsely and provocatively claim the election he has just lost was stolen from him?

How do they cover the activities and rhetoric of political extremists without giving oxygen to race hate and civil insurrection?

How do they integrate news-making social media material into their own content, when it is also hateful or a threat to the civil peace?

Should journalists engage in, or take a stand against, “cancel culture”?

How should editors respond to the “assassin’s veto”, when extremists threaten to kill those who publish content that offends their culture or religion?

The West has experienced concrete examples of all these in recent years. In the US, many of them became pressing during the Trump presidency.

When five of the big US television networks cut away from Trump’s White House press conference on November 6 after he claimed the election had been stolen, they did so on the grounds that he was lying and endangering civil peace.




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To stay or cut away? As Trump makes baseless claims, TV networks are faced with a serious dilemma


Silencing the president was an extraordinary step, since it is the job of the media to tell people what is going on, hold public officials to account, and uphold the right to free speech. It looked like an abandonment of their role in democratic life.

Against that, television’s acknowledged reach and power imposes a heavy duty not to provide a platform for dangerous speech.

Then on January 6 – two months later to the day – after yet more incitement from Trump, a violent mob laid siege to the Capitol and five people lost their lives. The networks’ decision looked prescient.

They had acted on the principle that a clear and present danger to civil peace, based on credible evidence, should be prioritised over commitments to informing the public, holding public officials to account and freedom of speech.

This case also raised a further dilemma. Even if the danger to peace did not exist, should journalists just go on reporting – or broadcasting – known lies, even when they come from the president of the United States?




Read more:
No, Twitter is not censoring Donald Trump. Free speech is not guaranteed if it harms others


Newspaper editors and producers of pre-recorded radio and television content have the time to report lies while simultaneously calling them out as lies. Live radio and television do not. The words are out and the damage is done.

So the medium, the nature and size of the risk, how the informational and accountability functions of journalism are prioritised against the risk, and the free-speech imperative all play into these decisions.

Should the media report known lies, even if uttered by the president of the United States?
AAP/EPA/White House handout

Similar considerations arise in respect of reporting political extremism.

The ABC’s Four Corners program is about to embark on a story about the alt-right in the US. Having advertised this in a promotional tweet, the ABC received some social media blow-back raising the question of why it would give oxygen to these groups.

The influence of the alt-right on Western politics is a matter of real public interest because of the way it shapes political rhetoric and policy responses, particular on race and immigration.

To not report on this phenomenon because it pursues a morally reprehensible ideology would be to fail the ethical obligation of journalism to tell the community about the important things that are going on in the world.

It is not a question of whether to report, but how.

The Four Corners program will not be live to air. There will be opportunity for judicious editing. Journalists are under no obligation to report everything they are told. In fact they almost never do.

Motive matters

Whether the decision to omit is censorship comes down to motive: is it censorship to omit hate speech or incitement to violence? No. Because the reporter doesn’t agree with it? Yes.

Integrating social media content into professional mass media news presents all these complexities and one more: what is called the news value of “virality”.

Does the fact something has gone viral on social media make it news? For the more responsible professional mass media, something more will usually be needed. Does the subject matter affect large numbers of people? Is it inherently significant in some way? Does it involve some person who is in a position of authority or public trust?

Trump’s use of Twitter was an exploitation of these decision-rules, but did not invalidate them.

Social media is also the means by which “cancel culture” works. It enables large numbers of people to join a chorus of condemnation against someone for something they have said or done. It also puts pressure on institutions such as universities or media outlets to shun them.

It has become a means by which the otherwise powerless or voiceless can exert influence over people or organisations that would otherwise be beyond their reach.

There are those who are worried about the effects on free speech. In July 2020, Harper’s magazine published a letter of protest signed by 152 authors, academics, journalists, artists, poets, playwrights and critics.

While applauding the intentions behind “cancel culture” in advancing racial and social justice, they raised their voices against what they saw as a new set of moral attitudes that tended to favour ideological conformity.

In the aftermath of the police killings of black people in 2020 and the law-and-order response of the Trump administration, “cancel culture” began to affect journalism ethics. Some journalists on papers such as The Washington Post and The New York Times began taking public positions against the way their papers were reporting race issues.

In the aftermath of the Black Lives Matter protests, some journalists began to question how their papers covered race issues.
AAP/AP/Evan Vucci

It led to a lively debate in the profession about the extent to which moral preferences should shape news decisions. The riposte to those who argued that they should, was: whose moral preferences should prevail?

This was yet another illustration of the complexities surrounding free speech issues arising from the social media phenomenon, the Trump presidency and the combination of the two.

Terrorism has also added its contribution. Over the decade 2005-2015, what became known as the Danish cartoons confronted journalists and editors with life-and-death decisions.

In 2005, the Danish newspaper Jyllands Posten (Jutland Post) published cartoons lampooning the Prophet Mohammed. It was a conscious act of defiance against “the assassin’s veto”, violent threats to free speech by Islamist-jihadis.

In 2009, a Danish-born professor of politics wrote a book, The Cartoons that Shook the World. Yale University Press, which published it, refused to re-publish the cartoons after having taken advice from counter-terrorism experts about the risks.

In November 2011, the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo published an issue called Charia Hebdo, satirically featuring the Prophet as editor. The real editor was placed on an Al-Qaeda hit list and in January 2015, two masked gunmen opened fire on the newspaper office, killing 12 people, including the editor.




Read more:
Charlie Hebdo: the pen must defy the sword, Islamic or not


The world’s media were confronted with the decision whether to re-publish the cartoons again in defiance of “the assassin’s veto”. Some did, but most – including Jyllands Posten – did not.

The necessary limits of free speech

Free speech is an indispensable civil right under assault from all these forces. But none of the philosophers whose names we immediately associate with free speech have claimed it to be absolute.

The social media platforms, having for years proclaimed themselves extreme libertarians, have in recent times begun to recognise this is indefensible, and strengthened their moderating procedures.

Some of Australia’s senior politicians seem baffled by the issue.

When Twitter shut down Trump’s account, acting Prime Minister Michael McCormack didn’t seem to know where he stood, saying in one breath it was a violation of free speech to shut down Trump while in the next that Twitter should also take down the false image of an Australian soldier slitting the throat of an Afghan child.

And he is a former country newspaper editor.

This was followed by Treasurer Josh Frydenberg’s remark that he was “uncomfortable” with the Twitter decision. He quoted Voltaire as saying something Voltaire never said: the famous line that while he disagreed with what someone said, he would defend to the death his right to say it. It was a fabrication put into Voltaire’s mouth by a biographer more than 100 years after his death.

Voltaire, Milton, Spinoza, Locke and Mill, to say nothing of the US Supreme Court, have not regarded free speech as an absolute right.

So while the media face some extremely difficult decisions in today’s operating environment, they do not need to burden themselves with the belief that every decision not to publish is the violation of an inviolable right.The Conversation

Denis Muller, Senior Research Fellow, Centre for Advancing Journalism, University of Melbourne

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

No, Twitter is not censoring Donald Trump. Free speech is not guaranteed if it harms others



Alex Brandon/AP

Katharine Gelber, The University of Queensland

The recent storming of the US Capitol has led a number of social media platforms to remove President Donald Trump’s account. In the case of Twitter, the ban is permanent. Others, like Facebook, have taken him offline until after President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration next week.

This has led to a flurry of commentary in the Australian media about “free speech”. Treasurer Josh Frydenburg has said he is “uncomfortable” with Twitter’s removal of Trump, while the acting prime minister, Michael McCormack, has described it as “censorship”.

Meanwhile, MPs like Craig Kelly and George Christensen continue to ignore the evidence and promote misinformation about the nature of the violent, pro-Trump mob that attacked the Capitol.

A growing number of MPs are also reportedly calling for consistent and transparent rules to be applied by online platforms in a bid to combat hate speech and other types of harmful speech.

Some have conflated this effort with the restrictions on Trump’s social media usage, as though both of these issues reflect the same problem.

Much of this commentary is misguided, wrong and confusing. So let’s pull it apart a bit.

There is no free speech “right” to incite violence

There is no free speech argument in existence that suggests an incitement of lawlessness and violence is protected speech.

Quite to the contrary. Nineteenth century free speech proponent John Stuart Mill argued the sole reason one’s liberty may be interfered with (including restrictions on free speech) is “self-protection” — in other words, to protect people from harm or violence.




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Additionally, incitement to violence is a criminal offence in all liberal democratic orders. There is an obvious reason for this: violence is harmful. It harms those who are immediately targeted (five people died in the riots last week) and those who are intimidated as a result of the violence to take action or speak up against it.

It also harms the institutions of democracy themselves, which rely on elections rather than civil wars and a peaceful transfer of power.

To suggest taking action against speech that incites violence is “censoring” the speaker is completely misleading.

There is no free speech “right” to appear on a particular platform

There is also no free speech argument that guarantees any citizen the right to express their views on a specific platform.

It is ludicrous to suggest there is. If this “right” were to exist, it would mean any citizen could demand to have their opinions aired on the front page of the Sydney Morning Herald and, if refused, claim their free speech had been violated.




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What does exist is a general right to express oneself in public discourse, relatively free from regulation, as long as one’s speech does not harm others.

Trump still possesses this right. He has a podium in the West Wing designed for this specific purpose, which he can make use of at any time.

Were he to do so, the media would cover what he says, just as they covered his comments prior to, during and immediately after the riots. This included him telling the rioters that he loved them and that they were “very special”.

Trump told his supporters before the Capitol was overrun: ‘if you don’t fight like hell, you’re not going to have a country anymore’.
Jacquelyn Martin/AP

Does the fact he’s the president change this?

In many free speech arguments, political speech is accorded a higher level of protection than other forms of speech (such as commercial speech, for example). Does the fact this debate concerns the president of the United States change things?

No, it does not. There is no doubt Trump has been given considerable leeway in his public commentary prior to — and during the course of — his presidency. However, he has now crossed a line into stoking imminent lawlessness and violence.

This cannot be protected speech just because it is “political”. If this was the case, it would suggest the free speech of political elites can and should have no limits at all.

Yet, in all liberal democracies – even the United States which has the strongest free speech protection in the world – free speech has limits. These include the incitement of violence and crime.

Are social media platforms over-censoring?

The last decade or so has seen a vigorous debate over the attitudes and responses of social media platforms to harmful speech.

The big tech companies have staunchly resisted being asked to regulate speech, especially political speech, on their platforms. They have enjoyed the profits of their business model, while specific types of users – typically the marginalised – have borne the costs.

However, platforms have recently started to respond to demands and public pressure to address the harms of the speech they facilitate – from countering violent extremism to fake accounts, misinformation, revenge porn and hate speech.

They have developed community standards for content moderation that are publicly available. They release regular reports on their content moderation processes.

Facebook has even created an independent oversight board to arbitrate disputes over their decision making on content moderation.

They do not always do very well at this. One of the core problems is their desire to create algorithms and policies that are applicable universally across their global operations. But such a thing is impossible when it comes to free speech. Context matters in determining whether and under what circumstances speech can harm. This means they make mistakes.




Read more:
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Where to now?

The calls by MPs Anne Webster and Sharon Claydon to address hate speech online are important. They are part of the broader push internationally to find ways to ensure the benefits of the internet can be enjoyed more equally, and that a person’s speech does not silence or harm others.

Arguments about harm are longstanding, and have been widely accepted globally as forming a legitimate basis for intervention.

But the suggestion Trump has been censored is simply wrong. It misleads the public into believing all “free speech” claims have equal merit. They do not.

We must work to ensure harmful speech is regulated in order to ensure broad participation in the public discourse that is essential to our lives — and to our democracy. Anything less is an abandonment of the principles and ethics of governance.The Conversation

Katharine Gelber, Professor of Politics and Public Policy, The University of Queensland

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

As protests roil France, Macron faces a wicked problem — and it could lead to his downfall



CHRISTOPHE PETIT TESSON/EPA

Peter McPhee, University of Melbourne

Two years ago, the streets of France were filled with the gilets jaunes (yellow vests), a grassroots protest movement sparked by a proposed tax hike on petrol.

Though they have shed their yellow safety jackets, many of these disaffected people have joined a new wave of protests that has roiled France for weeks, presenting a major challenge for the government of President Emmanuel Macron.

The protests erupted in late October after the horrific murder of the schoolteacher Samuel Paty, who had used caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad during a lesson. Thousands marched in tribute to Paty, but also in support of freedom of speech.

In the past month, protesters have also taken aim at a proposed new security law intended to combat what the government describes as “Islamic radicalism”. Nearly 150 people were arrested last weekend after protests became violent.

Rights groups and journalists’ unions have denounced what they call ‘arbitrary arrests’ at the latest protests.
CHRISTOPHE PETIT TESSON/EPA

The roots of Macron’s current challenge

An explanation of the tensions connecting these protests takes us deep into the history of France, as well as to contemporary crises. It also suggests that there is no simple solution.

In 1789, French revolutionaries sought to capture their twin aspirations of religious tolerance and freedom of speech in articles 10 and 11 of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen.




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“No man may be harassed for his opinions, even religious ones”, they insisted, while asserting that “the free communication of thoughts and opinions is one of the most precious rights of man”.

Should these natural rights be curtailed in any way? Yes, of course: as article 4 stipulates, they would be limited to “ensure the enjoyment of the same rights for other members of society”. As to how this would be achieved, “only the law may determine these limits”.

Therein lay the problem. Since “the law” would be made by national legislatures, these limits would always be instrumental — that is, made by elected politicians working within a social and political context. That is Macron’s wicked problem today.

Macron called Paty a ‘quiet hero’ at a memorial service and said he was ‘killed because Islamists want our future’.
Francois Mori/AP

The continuing debate over laïcité

Conflict over limits to freedom arose immediately between revolutionaries and their opponents after 1789. There were ribald, even pornographic, attacks on Marie-Antoinette and the Catholic Church, reflecting a deadly schism between secular, republican France and the church.

For republicans, a central legacy of the revolution has been the principle of laïcité, that is, of a secular public space.

Freedom of religion has been guaranteed in France so long as it does not disturb public order. Religion is seen as a private matter and its observance strictly separated from public life.

This is a deeply held conviction in France. It explains the 2010 law that bans the wearing of full-face coverings in public, including but not limited to burqas and niqābs.

An unidentified veiled woman is led away by police after the law banning face coverings came into effect.
Michel Euler/AP

French supporters of laïcité would find it perplexing, if not offensive, to see one Australian prime minister, Kevin Rudd, holding Sunday press conferences outside his church, or another, Scott Morrison, welcoming the media inside his church and describing secular events (such as an election victory) as a “miracle”. In France, this might end political careers.

Australian and US commentators have been too ready to criticise France for not being as accepting of difference as their own societies, ignoring France’s different history and present.




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France’s laïcité: why the rest of the world struggles to understand it


From 1789, Jews, Protestants, Muslims — as well as Catholics — were guaranteed the freedom to worship, but the fine line between religious freedoms and secular public space has always been blurred, sometimes with tragic consequences.

Take Captain Alfred Dreyfus’s false conviction for treason in 1894, followed by his imprisonment and eventual exoneration in 1906. This was profoundly polarising because it embodied the violent divisions in France about the place of Jews in public life at a time of acute anti-semitism.

Dreyfus’s anti-semitic and anti-republican accusers included many clergy
— one of the reasons behind the formal separation of church and state in 1905.

The start of Alfred Dreyfus’s trial in Rennes in 1899.
Wikimedia Commons

Deep national tensions over Islam

Similarly, the beheading of Paty and subsequent terror attack in Nice in late October sparked a profound response because they occurred amid deep national tensions over the place of Muslims in France.

These tensions go back to wars of decolonisation in the 1960s, but were heightened by recent attacks at the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and the Bataclan theatre in 2015.

Mourners leave flowers at a memorial to the victims of the knife attack at the Notre Dame Basilica church in Nice.
SEBASTIEN NOGIER/EPA

While almost all Muslim organisations in France were prompt and unequivocal in repudiating those murders, elsewhere in the Muslim world, some were hostile to the freedoms accorded to media outlets such as Charlie Hebdo to publish caricatures mocking Islam and its prophet.

Leaders in Turkey, Morocco, Pakistan, Egypt and elsewhere condemned the magazine and called for consumer boycotts of French products.

Charlie Hebdo’s defence was that it mocks everybody, and it followed with an obscene cartoon of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.




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Liberty, equality, fraternity: redefining ‘French’ values in the wake of Charlie Hebdo


Macron has insisted the respect due to all religions must be balanced by the right to freedom of expression, no matter how offensive some caricatures might be to people of faith.

He has defended the right of Charlie Hebdo to publish the caricatures, even though some might be banned in other countries as deliberately offensive, even racist. While France has anti-hate laws, its highest courts have also been very reluctant to penalise satire.

At the same time, Macron’s minister of national education, Jean-Michel Blanquer, has targeted “Islamo-gauchisme”, the supposed undermining of French republican values by left-wing academics and intellectuals infected by feelings of guilt for France’s colonial past.

Can Macron find a solution?

These tensions have now spilled onto the streets in unanticipated ways, as they have become embroiled with deep anxieties and divisions about decolonisation, policing and the limits to secularism. All of this comes at a time of economic despair and strident criticism of the government’s mishandling of the pandemic.

In this context, violent police raids and a sweeping national security law, which would make a criminal offence to publish photos or film identifying police officers and expand police surveillance powers, have sparked widespread discontent.

In early December, the Macron government announced a revision of the security bill. This alone will not staunch a profound crisis of confidence in the foundational values of the republic: secularism, freedom of speech and respect for religious plurality.

In such a situation, the siren calls of cultural stereotyping may become louder, and Macron may need a “miracle” of his own to keep France out of the hands of Marine Le Pen and her Rassemblement National (National Rally), formerly known as the Front National, at the presidential elections of April 2022.The Conversation

Peter McPhee, Emeritus professor, University of Melbourne

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Parler: what you need to know about the ‘free speech’ Twitter alternative



Wikimedia

Audrey Courty, Griffith University

Amid claims of social media platforms stifling free speech, a new challenger called Parler is drawing attention for its anti-censorship stance.

Last week, Harper’s Magazine published an open letter signed by 150 academics, writers and activists concerning perceived threats to the future of free speech.

The letter, signed by Noam Chomsky, Francis Fukuyama, Gloria Steinem and J.K. Rowling, among others, reads:

The free exchange of information and ideas, the lifeblood of a liberal society, is daily becoming more constricted.

Debates surroundings free speech and censorship have taken centre stage in recent months. In May, Twitter started adding fact-check labels to tweets from Donald Trump.

More recently, Reddit permanently removed its largest community of Trump supporters.

In this climate, Parler presents itself as a “non-biased, free speech driven” alternative to Twitter. Here’s what you should know about the US-based startup.




Read more:
Is cancel culture silencing open debate? There are risks to shutting down opinions we disagree with


What is Parler?

Parler reports more than 1.5 million users and is growing in popularity, especially as Twitter and other social media giants crackdown on misinformation and violent content.

Parler appears similar to Twitter in its appearance and functions.
screenshot

Parler is very similar to Twitter in appearance and function, albeit clunkier. Like Twitter, Parler users can follow others and engage with public figures, news sources and other users.

Public posts are called “parleys” rather than “tweets” and can contain up to 1,000 characters.

Users can comment, ‘echo’ or ‘vote’ on parleys.
screenshot

Users can search for hashtags, make comments, “echo” posts (similar to a retweet) and “vote” (similar to a like) on posts. There’s also a direct private messaging feature, just like Twitter.

Given this likeness, what actually is unique about Parler?

Fringe views welcome?

Parler’s main selling point is its claim it embraces freedom of speech and has minimal moderation. “If you can say it on the street of New York, you can say it on Parler”, founder John Matze explains.

This branding effort capitalises on allegations competitors such as Twitter and Facebook unfairly censor content and discriminate against right-wing political speech.

While other platforms often employ fact checkers, or third-party editorial boards, Parler claims to moderate content based on American Federal Communications Commission guidelines and Supreme Court rulings.

So if someone shared demonstrably false information on Parler, Matze said it would be up to other users to fact-check them “organically”.

And although Parler is still dwarfed by Twitter (330 million users) and Facebook (2.6 billion users) the platform’s anti-censorship stance continues to attract users turned off by the regulations of larger social media platforms.

When Twitter recently hid tweets from Trump for “glorifying violence”, this partly prompted the Trump campaign to consider moving to a platform such as Parler.

Far-right American political activist and conspiracy theorist Lara Loomer is among Parler’s most popular users.
screenshot

Matze also claims Parler protects users’ privacy by not tracking or sharing their data.

Is Parler really a free speech haven?

Companies such as Twitter and Facebook have denied they are silencing conservative voices, pointing to blanket policies against hate speech and content inciting violence.

Parler’s “free speech” has resulted in various American Republicans, including Senator Ted Cruz, promoting the platform.

Many conservative influencers such as Katie Hopkins, Lara Loomer and Alex Jones have sought refuge on Parler after being banned from other platforms.

Although it brands itself as a bipartisan safe space, Parler is mostly used by right-wing media, politicians and commentators.

Moreover, a closer look at its user agreement suggests it moderates content the same way as any platform, maybe even more.

The company states:

Parler may remove any content and terminate your access to the Services at any time and for any reason or no reason.

Parler’s community guidelines prohibit a range of content including spam, terrorism, unsolicited ads, defamation, blackmail, bribery and criminal behaviour.

Although there are no explicit rules against hate speech, there are policies against “fighting words” and “threats of harm”. This includes “a threat of or advocating for violation against an individual or group”.

Parler CEO John Matze clarified the platform’s rules after banning users, presumably for breaking one or more of the listed rules.

There are rules against content that is obscene, sexual or “lacks serious literary, artistic, political and scientific value”. For example, visuals of genitalia, female nipples, or faecal matter are barred from Parler.

Meanwhile, Twitter allows “consensually produced adult content” if its marked as “sensitive”. It also has no policy against the visual display of excrement.

As a private company, Parler can remove whatever content it wants. Some users have already been banned for breaking rules.

What’s more, in spite of claims it does not share user data, Parler’s privacy policy states data collected can be used for advertising and marketing.




Read more:
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No marks of establishment

Given its limited user base, Parler has yet to become the “open town square” it aspires to be.

The platform is in its infancy and its user base is much less representative than larger social media platforms.

Despite Matze saying “left-leaning” users tied to the Black Lives Matter movement were joining Parler to challenge conservatives, Parler lacks the diverse audience needed for any real debate.

Upon joining the platform, Parler suggests following several politically conservative users.
screenshot

Matze also said he doesn’t want Parler to be an “echo chamber” for conservative voices. In fact, he is offering a US$20,000 “progressive bounty” for an openly liberal pundit with 50,000 followers on Twitter or Facebook to join.

Clearly, the platform has a long way to go before it bursts its conservative bubble.




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The Conversation


Audrey Courty, PhD candidate, School of Humanities, Languages and Social Science, Griffith University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

There are differences between free speech, hate speech and academic freedom – and they matter


Academic freedom protects free speech, but also sets conditions.
from http://www.shutterstock.com, CC BY-ND

Dominic O’Sullivan, Charles Sturt University

Last week, posters appeared at the University of Auckland inviting young white men to “assume the mantle of re-taking control of our own country” and to confront “anti-racism ideology”.

The group was obviously unaware of the significance of the British High Commissioner’s expression of regret, in the same week, for the killing of several Māori people during their first encounter with the English explorer James Cook in 1769.

At least 1,300 academics and students signed an open letter, arguing that racism and white supremacy have no place at the university and challenging the Vice Chancellor’s initial position that there is no justification for removing the posters.

This week, the Vice Chancellor changed his position, telling staff that a debate about free speech should be put to one side for now, as the most important matter was the “real hurt and sense of threat that some people in our university community feel in response to these expressions of white supremacist views”.




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Free speech vs academic freedom

Neither the Vice Chancellor nor the signatories to the open letter bring academic freedom into the debate. But minister of justice Andrew Little, a former president of the New Zealand University Students’ Association, argued that there is “no principle of academic freedom” that says white supremacy ought to be protected.

Free speech, hate speech and academic freedom are related but different. And the differences matter.

Free speech is the right to say whatever one likes. It is unconstrained by the disciplines of reason and objectivity. It doesn’t require factual accuracy. As with academic freedom, it doesn’t matter if one’s opinion is unpopular. Both free speech and academic freedom are essential to democracy.

Free speech belongs in universities as much as anywhere else. It is the right to hold opinions and to challenge the opinions of others. A Chinese student in New Zealand once asked me if it was alright to criticise the prime minister in an essay. This underscores the importance of free speech, but also the need for great caution in setting its limits.

Academic freedom protects free speech on the one hand, but conditions it on the other. Universities cannot support the unrestricted pursuit of knowledge if one cannot think freely. But knowledge cannot be tested and doesn’t advance if there isn’t also a duty to be well informed and reasoned – and willing to have one’s ideas scrutinised by others.

In a university, the test of a reasonable opinion is higher. One cannot say whatever one likes and call it academic freedom.

Hate speech as a limit

Both free speech and academic freedom are limited by hate speech.

According to the United Nations, hate speech is:

any kind of communication in speech, writing or behaviour, that attacks or uses pejorative or discriminatory language with reference to a person or a group on the basis of who they are, in other words, based on their religion, ethnicity, nationality race, colour, descent, gender or other identity factor.

When people say that they want to “reclaim” a country as their own and contest “anti-racism” they are saying overtly and unapologetically that they don’t want others to have a democratic presence. They are saying that they don’t want others to have free speech. Nor do they want academics who are not “young white men” to have academic freedom.

These aren’t democratically legitimate differences of opinion because “toleration is not the solution to intolerance”.

There are differences between what is wrong and what is intolerably wrong. There are some views that a free society can’t tolerate.

Racism is intolerably wrong because it denies some people human equality. It creates a hierarchy of human worth and causes serious harm to its targets.




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A ‘right to be bigots’

In Australia, free speech is restricted under the Racial Discrimination Act 1975 which provides that:

It is unlawful for a person to do an act, otherwise than in private, if:
(a) the act is reasonably likely, in all the circumstances, to offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate another person or a group of people; and
(b) the act is done because of the race, colour or national or ethnic origin of the other person or of some or all of the people in the group.

There are significant qualifications to these restrictions. But, in spite of these, in 2014 the attorney general told parliament that the act imposed unreasonable constraints on people’s “right to be bigots”.

The conservative think tank the Institute of Public Affairs claimed in 2018 that university policies curtailing free speech had dramatically increased in the preceding two years. The University of Sydney’s Vice Chancellor argued that robust processes “ensure that freedom of speech from all parts of the spectrum is alive and well on our campuses”.

But earlier this year, a government-commissioned inquiry found that “claims of a freedom of speech crisis on Australian campuses are not substantiated”. The review also found that universities should not allow visitors to use their premises to “advance theories or propositions … which fall below scholarly standards to such an extent as to be detrimental to the university’s character as an institution of higher learning”.

Defending a right to bigotry, or to express hate speech, trivialises what the denial of both free speech and academic freedom can really look like.
In China, for example, the state has warned against the presence of “mistaken views” in universities, including the study of constitutional democracy, civil society, economic liberalisation, freedom of the press, challenges to socialism with Chinese characteristics and discussion of universal values including academic freedom.

In the case of the white supremacy posters, it would seem that University of Auckland academics, not the Vice Chancellor, had the stronger argument.The Conversation

Dominic O’Sullivan, Associate Professor of Political Science, Charles Sturt University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Freedom of speech: a history from the forbidden fruit to Facebook



Humans have always sought knowledge, all the way back to Eve.
Wes Mountain/The Conversation, CC BY-ND

Matthew Sharpe, Deakin University

This essay is part of a series of articles on the future of education.


Free speech is in the news. Not least because several leading universities have adopted a “model code” to protect it on campus. And then there’s the Israel Folau saga, and debate over whether his Instagram post was free speech, or just hate speech.

If the Bible is to be believed, humans have sought knowledge since Eve. They have been disagreeing since Cain and Abel. From long before kings, people have been subject to rulers with a vested interest in controlling what was said and done.

Humans have always had a need to ask big questions and their freedom to ask them has often pushed against orthodoxies. Big questions make many people uneasy. Socrates, killed by the Athenians for corrupting the youth in 399 BCE, is only the most iconic example of what can happen when politics and piety combine against intellectuals who ask too many questions.

Or questions of the wrong kind.

In all this, there’s an implicit idea we understand the basic meaning of “free speech”, and we are all entitled to it. But what does it really mean, and how entitled are we?

Where does it come from?

The Ancient Greek Cynics – who valued a simple life, close to nature – valorised “parrhesia” or frank speech as an ethical, not a legal thing. Ancient polytheism (the belief in many gods) made the idea of religious intolerance unheard of, outside of condemning the odd philosopher.

But it was only in the 17th and 18th centuries that arguments for religious tolerance and the freedoms of conscience and speech took the forms we now take for granted.




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Explainer: what is free speech?


Protestantism, which began in Europe in the early 16th century, challenged the authority of the Catholic Church and its priests to interpret the Bible. Protestants appealed to individuals’ consciences and championed the translation of the Holy Book into the languages of ordinary people.

Protestant thinker John Locke argued, in 1689, that no person can compel another’s God-given conscience. Therefore, all attempts to do this should be forbidden.

At the same time, philosophers began to challenge the limits of human knowledge concerning God, immortality and the mysteries of faith.

People who claim the right to persecute others believe they know the truth. But the continuing disagreements between different religious sects speaks against the idea God has delivered his truth uniquely and unambiguously to any one group.

We are condemned by the limits of our knowledge to learn to tolerate our differences. But not at any cost.

We are condemned by the limits of our knowledge to learn to tolerate our differences.
from shutterstock.com

Defending freedom of conscience and speech is not an unlimited prospect. None of the great 18th century advocates of free speech, such as Voltaire, accepted libel, slander, defamation, incitements to violence, treason or collusion with foreign powers, as anything other than crimes.

It was not intolerant to censor groups who expressed a wish to overthrow the constitution. Or those who would harm members of a population who committed no offences. It was not intolerant to sanction individuals who incite violence against members of other religious or racial groups, solely on grounds of their group identities.




Read more:
After Charlottesville, how we define tolerance becomes a key question


At stake in these limits of free speech is what 19th century philosopher John Stuart Mill called the “harm principle”. According to this idea, supposedly free speech that causes or incites harm to others is not truly “free” at all.

Such speech attacks the preconditions of civil debate, which requires a minimum of respect and safety for one’s opponents.

Mill also held that a good society should allow a diversity of views to be presented without fear or favour. A group in which unquestioned orthodoxy prevails may miss evidence, reason badly, and be unduly influenced by political pressures (making sure the “right” view is maintained).

A society should be able to check different views against each other, refute and rectify errors, and ideally achieve a more comprehensive and truer set of beliefs.

Freedom of debate

Critics of Mill’s diversity ideal have said it mistakes society for a university seminar room. They contend politicians and academics have a more qualified sense of the value of seeking knowledge than impartial inquirers.

This criticism points to the special place of universities when it comes to concerns surrounding freedom of speech, past and present.




Read more:
Dan Tehan wants a ‘model code’ on free speech at universities – what is it and do unis need it?


When the great medieval universities were founded, they were established as autonomous corporations, as against private businesses or arms of public government.

If free inquiry to cultivate educated citizens was to flourish, the thought was, it must be insulated from the pressures of economic and political life. If an intellectual is a paid spokesman of a company or government, they will have strong incentives to suppress inconvenient truths, present only parts of the evidence, and to attack opponents, not their arguments, so as to lead critics from the trail.

A large part of the medieval syllabus, especially in the Arts faculties, consisted of teaching students how to question and debate competing opinions. The medieval summas reflect this culture: a form of text where propositions were raised, counter-propositions considered and rebutted, and comprehensive syntheses sought.

Students were taught to debate by putting forward an argument and addressing counter-arguments.
Jonathan Sharp/Unsplash

This is not to deny some counter-positions were beyond the pale. It served a person well to entertain them only as “the devil’s advocate”.

And at different times, certain propositions were condemned. For instance, the so called “Condemnations” of 1210-1277 at the medieval University of Paris, constrained a set of teachings considered heretical. These included teachings of Aristotle such as that human acts are not ruled by the providence of God and that there was never a first human.

At other times, books considered immoral by the Roman Catholic Church were burnt or put on the Index of prohibited works. And those that published such works, such as the 12th Century philosopher and poet Peter Abelard, were imprisoned.

Such practices would survive well into the 18th century in Catholic France, when encyclopedist Denis Diderot suffered a similar fate.

Early modern forms of scientific inquiry challenged the medieval paradigm. It was felt to rely too much on an established canon of authorities and so neglect peoples’ own experiences and capacities to reason on what these experiences revealed about the world.




Read more:
What exactly is the scientific method and why do so many people get it wrong?


Philosopher Francis Bacon, sometimes known as the father of empiricism, argued we cannot rely on the books of professors. New ways of asking questions and testing provisionally held hypotheses about the world should become decisive.

Since nature is so vast, and humans so limited, we would also need to inquire as part of a shared scientific culture, rather than placing our faith in individual geniuses.

Each inquirer would have to submit her results and conclusions to the scrutiny and testing of their peers. Such dialogue alone could make sure anyone’s ideas were not the fancies of an isolated dreamer.

Without this form of freedom of inquiry, with active fostering of dissenting voices, there could be no sciences.

Where are we now?

People from different political camps agonise about the fate of free speech. Those on the right point to humanities departments, arguing an artificial, unrepresentative conformism presides there. Those on the left have long pointed to economics and business departments, levelling similar accusations.

All the while, all departments are subject to the changing fate of universities that have lost a good deal of their post-medieval independence from political and economic forces.

So, the situation is not as simple as the controversies make it.

On one hand, charges of ideological closure need to be balanced against the way a certain (already discovered) truth exerts what philosopher and political analyst Hannah Arendt termed a coercive value.

No one is intellectually “free”, in any real sense, to claim the earth is flat. Blind denial of overwhelming evidence, however inconvenient, is not an exercise of liberty.




Read more:
No, you’re not entitled to your opinion


On the other hand, in more behavioural disciplines like politics, there is no one truth. When learning about social structures, to not consider conservatives as well as progressives is to foreclose students’ freedom of inquiry.

To teach a single economic perspective as unquestionably “scientific”, without considering its philosophical assumptions and historical failings, is likewise to do free inquiry (and our students) a disservice.

The question of how we should teach openly anti-liberal, anti-democratic thinkers is more complex. But surely to do so without explaining to students the implications of these thinkers’ ideas, and how they have been used by malign historical forces, is once more to sell intellectual freedom (and our democracy) short.

The final curve ball in free speech debates today comes from social media. Single remarks made anywhere in the world can now be ripped from their context, “go viral”, and cost someone their livelihood.

Freedom of speech, to be meaningful, depends on the ability of people of differing opinions to state their opinions (so long as their opinions are not criminal and don’t incite hatred or violence) without fear that, by doing so, they will be jeopardising their own and loved ones’ well-being.

When such conditions apply, as the Colonel used to say on Hogan’s Heroes, “we have ways of making you talk”. And also ways of keeping people silent.The Conversation

Matthew Sharpe, Associate Professor in Philosophy, Deakin University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.