Discussion about the importance of free speech is often distant and philosophical, but the consequences of restrictions are human.
Recently, Australian journalist Peter Greste was imprisoned in Egypt on trumped-up charges of aiding terrorists and endangering national security. His crime was that he reported on political events in Egypt.
His imprisonment was a timely reminder that the liberal human right of free speech is designed to protect the right of the individual to speak out, even when their views are unpopular with some. It was also a reminder that governments can never be relied upon to defend human rights.
Human rights, like free speech, protect the interests of the individual against the rule of the majority. No one believes in pure democracy. Even if 60 per cent of the population vote to silence the remainder of the population, we recognise that the 40 per cent should be free to speak.These ideas sit at the cultural heart of our country and our values.
Our social and political culture recognises that society is improved by individuals thinking for themselves, imparting their views and having them contested in open debate.
In the free market of ideas the views of people are scrutinised, good ideas gain support and bad ideas are rejected. But just because we have these values, it doesn’t mean that we should be complacent about our human right to think and speak for ourselves.
Even if they don’t land people in jail, restrictions in Australia have a human face as well. There are many restrictions on what people can say in state and federal law. Broad defamation laws restrict scrutiny of the rich and the powerful. National security laws undermine scrutiny of government activities. Individually, these restrictions may appear justified and benign. But they highlight part of the problem when laws are used to limit our human rights.
For most Australians these restrictions on free speech probably don’t appear that relevant to their day-to-day lives. We don’t walk down the street worried about what we can say. But that ignores one of the primary benefits of free and open discussion.
Restricting what people can say is not just an affront to the rights of the speaker; it is also an assault on the rights of the listener. Restrictions are introduced incrementally and often to pursue seemingly worthy policy objectives. Compounded, they limit every individual’s capacity to hear the views of others, exercise reason and communicate our own thoughts.
Every individual’s capacity to think for themselves requires being able to hear different views and opinions, which we are more exposed to in the digital age. The last Parliament considered the introduction of an internet filter to protect Australians from the excesses of material online.
But the internet also demonstrates the pointlessness of restricting what some people have to say, and that the government should protect us from the worst ideas and thoughts. On the internet we can access the most absurd and hateful websites, and yet our society has not become corrupted in the process.
The internet is a demonstration that we can trust individuals to exercise reason and judgement, and that is a good thing. Without constitutional or legislative protection of our most basic human rights, it is up to active citizens and civil society to defend them.
Defending human rights is a neverending task. Each generation needs to reacquaint itself with why we put these sacrosanct principles on a pedestal. We need to constantly remind ourselves that in a liberal democracy all speech is legal, unless it is made specifically illegal.
And in a free society the reason we make speech illegal is because it conflicts with the human rights of others. We restrict harassing speech that incites violence because it harms the physical security of others. We limit speech that steals copyright because it undermines the property rights of others. We don’t restrict speech that merely offends the sensibilities of others. Free speech does not need to be defended from the excessive use of ''please'' and ''thank you''. Free speech needs to be defended when someone has crossed the line of social acceptability.
These were the issues surrounding the federal government’s recently shelved plans to amend section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act. The woeful debate about the shortcomings of the current law has highlighted one of the systemic problems of advancing individual rights.
There will always be a constituency that wants government to restrict the human rights of others for their preferred public policy goal. But doing so always risks undermining the human rights of all Australians. Discussing changes to the Racial Discrimination Act were the beginning of our national discussion on the importance of free speech, not the end.
The next step is to develop a broader road map for reform that advances human rights for every Australian.
Tim Wilson is Australia's Human Rights Commissioner.