Freedom For the Speech We Oppose

Russell Blackford on why we must defend the free speech of speakers we oppose.

The Australian government recently cancelled an entry visa held by American anti-abortion campaigner Troy Newman. Although he managed to reach Australia without a valid visa, he failed in an urgent court application to allow him to stay, and he had to abandon his tour with its schedule of lectures and media appearances. Newman is notorious for his extreme views, but the decision to keep him out of Australia raises familiar issues about how we should respond to public speech that seems deplorable or repugnant.

Like many of his allies, Newman categorizes abortion as murder. He has gone further, however, in questioning why it is not a capital offence in jurisdictions with the death penalty. More worryingly, he protested in 2003 at the execution of Paul Jennings Hill – because he saw some justification in the premeditated murders committed by Hill in 1994. Hill’s victims were the doctor at an abortion clinic in Pensacola, Florida, and the doctor’s bodyguard.

That acknowledged, Newman does not, as far as I can establish, advocate direct violence by private individuals. Whatever he may have said on a particular occasion in 2003, he seemingly had no plan of inciting, or promoting, private violence during his Australian tour. Rather, he advocates prohibiting abortion through the legal system. His views could, even so, scarcely be further from my own, since I don’t regard abortion as meriting even regret or social censure, much less any kind of legal prohibition. I am against anti-abortion laws and against public or private shaming of women who have chosen to have abortions. As I see it, moreover, the legal right and practical ability of women to terminate pregnancies is at the core of totally justified feminist demands for a social transition to gender equality. In short, Newman and I are clearly opponents. Should I celebrate his exclusion from my country, as many of my friends and political allies have been doing, or is it a troubling development?

It’s a troubling development. There is a crucial difference between rejecting (or arguing against) an opinion and trying to prevent its expression. Whatever else it might involve, freedom of speech (or just free speech) includes freedom from state censorship of opinions on issues of general concern. Freedom of speech is not constitutionally required in all jurisdictions in the Western world, and, indeed, it has only a limited role to play in Australian constitutional law. But the principle has wide, if sometimes informal, acceptance. It is basic to liberal democratic societies, and I submit that it’s worth elaborating, defending, and preserving.

No matter how toxic Newman’s opinions seem to me, or to others, even the narrowest conception of free speech would grant him a right to express them peacefully. Likewise, it requires that potential audiences be able to hear them directly from him.

Newman has not, of course, been totally silenced, since his books are in print and he is at liberty to give presentations in the United States (and probably many other countries). All the same, the Australian government’s approach sits poorly with any conception of free speech. To the extent that his visa was cancelled in order to prevent him from delivering his message in speeches and media appearances in Australia, this was a classic act of state censorship of politically unacceptable opinions.

Ironically, Newman is, himself, blatantly theocratic and authoritarian. But when such a person has his speech suppressed (to whatever extent) by the state it erodes a principle that we all should treasure. Though each of us has limited time and energy - and none of us can become involved in every particular controversy - we have powerful reasons to defend the expression of opinions that we hate and oppose. Otherwise, we acquiesce in the destruction of free speech as a broadly accepted principle, and we convey that we support only the freedom to express opinions that we view as agreeable or innocuous.

In a situation as high-profile as Newman’s, therefore, we’re compelled to protest to whatever extent our circumstances and resources allow. This is distracting, of course, and there are many other things we could do with our time and energy. Indeed, the main thing about our opponents is that we oppose them.

Though illiberal ideas such as Newman’s should not be banned, they should, I submit, be disputed strongly, meticulously, and relentlessly. Much as I don’t want their expression prevented by censorship, I do want them to be defeated in the sense of being pushed to the margins of what is accorded credibility in the formulation of public policy. I’d rather help with that struggle than have to spend time on the meta-level issue of whether speech such as Newman’s should even be permitted utterance. Unfortunately, the Australian government’s decision created a crisis that demanded liberal responses. Perversely, the government gave Newman’s view of the world more publicity than if he had simply toured the country with little fanfare.

To this point, I’ve relied on a very narrow conception of freedom of speech: in essence, a freedom from suppression by the state of opinions on topics of general concern. I have not discussed attempts to suppress speech by private means, such as by organized efforts to get people fired from their jobs if they’ve expressed certain opinions. Nor have I discussed attempts to suppress speech and other expression that contains little or nothing in the way of opinions – but which may, for example, possess artistic merit, or may simply give expression to the speaker’s personality and values.

I don’t propose that we live and work with a narrow conception of free speech. On the contrary, we should, I think, defend a very wide range of speech from a similarly wide range of private, as well as governmental, attacks. In many cases, this will include defending cultural products – such as movies, songs, video games, books, and magazines – from simplistic or unfair interpretations. That can, in turn, require us to study (and learn to explain) countless aspects of nuance, style, various kinds of irony, political context, artistic tradition, and so on.

Our civilization’s artists and other creators are often savaged by narrow, culturally illiterate ideologues. For immediate purposes, however, we can set all this to one side. Troy Newman’s opinions really are illiberal and otherwise deplorable. They don't seem especially nuanced, complex, artistically valuable, or otherwise defensible on their merits. Newman really is an authoritarian, a theocrat, and an ideologue. There is no plausible basis that I can see to defend the substance of his views; instead, they warrant harsh scrutiny.

But for all that, no-platforming him from an entire country, solely or largely for his opinions on matters of general interest, should not be accepted without protests from his opponents as much as his supporters. It’s not so much that Newman deserves better. We all deserve better than this illiberal attack on a basic liberal principle.

RUSSELL BLACKFORD IS A CONJOINT LECTURER IN THE SCHOOL OF HUMANITIES AND SOCIAL SCIENCE, UNIVERSITY OF NEWCASTLE, NSW. HE IS THE AUTHOR OF 50 GREAT MYTHS ABOUT ATHEISM (WITH UDO SCHUKLENK; WILEY-BLACKWELL) AND HUMANITY ENHANCED (MIT PRESS).