Free speech and responsibilities

David Hall

Every morning, on the way to work, I pass Speakers’ Corner, near the eastern entrance to Albert Park. It offers a public platform for people to speak freely. It also has a sign with a code of conduct: “Show courtesy to others. Respect alternative opinions. Be lawful.” And so on.

Them’s the rules. You are free to speak, but only if you conduct yourself appropriately. With rights come responsibilities. And while rights are often easier to enshrine in law than responsibilities, that doesn’t mean the latter aren’t important. On the contrary, that’s where our attention should turn.

Our recent national conversation about free speech has often looked and sounded dysfunctional. That’s because it often starts in the wrong place. An awful lot has been said about our supposed entitlements, but far less about our responsibilities as speakers, particularly in regards to the consequences of our speech.

It was interesting that Paul Moon and David Cumin, writing recently for the Herald, appealed to Edmund Burke in their defence of free speech, even though Burke was a sceptic about rights. As a conservative, he worried about their corrosive effect on society and tradition, and took very seriously the responsibilities of speakers. Burke once wrote: “But what is liberty without wisdom and without virtue? It is the greatest of all possible evils; for it is folly, vice, and madness, without tuition or restraint.”

Misuse of philosophy isn’t unusual in free speech debates. The most notorious example is that quote by Voltaire – “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it” – which Voltaire never actually wrote. It was, rather, a gloss by a biographer, Evelyn Beatrice Hall.

No doubt, Voltaire was a champion of liberty. But it isn’t obvious that he was a die-hard absolutist about free speech; he never wrote formally on the subject. He did, however, write a lot about religious tolerance. Here’s an actual quote by Voltaire on the subject of anti-Islamic slander: “I hate calumny so much… One must combat [it] ceaselessly. When one has destroyed an error, there is always someone who resuscitates it.” We could reasonably ask whether Voltaire, if he were alive today, would’ve wasted his breath defending Lauren Southern and Stefan Molyneux, or instead ripped them to shreds for their sophistry and defamatory remarks.

But is this a question worth asking? How much can we learn from the ideas of long-dead philosophers?

Given that political philosophy is part of my day job, I think there are things to learn. But it would be silly to treat old arguments as static and unchanging. We live in a digital age, in a country founded upon Te Tiriti o Waitangi. We need to think about what this means for how we conduct our public conversations.

One of the least edifying sights of the last few weeks has been Pākehā pundits lecturing Māori and other minorities on the distinction between harm and offence. As if a person could be completely mistaken about what is harmful to them. But it is one thing to have your opinions attacked (that’s cause for offence), it is quite another thing when it’s your dignity and standing as a people that’s under attack (that’s cause for harm). As Treaty partners, Pākehā should listen very closely when Māori talk about the harm caused by continued attacks on their mana, their history, and their relationship to the land.

To worry about such things isn’t inconsistent with the free speech tradition. Consider John Stuart Mill’s famous defence of personal freedom, On Liberty. As anyone who’s actually read that book will know, after he’s finished stridently defending his liberty principle in the first two chapters, he spends much of the next few chapters reining it back in.

He writes: “The liberty of the individual must be thus far limited; he must not make himself a nuisance to other people.” In other words, society is justified in restricting people’s behaviour for “self-protection” and “to prevent harm to others.” And Mill considers the people themselves as the proper experts on what causes them harm: “Each is the proper guardian of his own health, whether bodily, or mental or spiritual.”

Can we extract from Mill’s writing a ready-made answer to our recent quandaries over free speech, hate speech and no-platforming? I doubt it, but we can extract a few key considerations.

For Mill, freedom of opinion is a means to an end, a way to increase human happiness and to discover truths about the world. So, if our public conversations are having the opposite effect – if they are silencing people, promoting misinformation, or causing misery and shame – then Mill would not dismiss this lightly. He was a consequentialist after all, believing that the ends alone can justify the means.

And while Mill was wary of the heavy hand of the law, he acknowledged that communities have a significant role in regulating anti-social behaviour: “As soon as any part of a person’s conduct affects prejudicially the interests of others, society has jurisdiction over it, and the question whether the general welfare will or will not be promoted by interfering with it, becomes open to discussion.”

This is the discussion we should have, indeed often are having. Law might be too blunt an instrument – as Moon and Cumin argue – but this is hardly the end of the conversation. Public and private organisations can do a lot to clarify their own codes of conduct for their online and offline platforms, thereby circumventing the need to involve state punishment.

We should reflect on what respect, manaakitanga and common decency sounds like. (Pro-tip: it won’t sound like the vitriol that Lani Wendt Young, Lizzie Marvelly and many other women are routinely subjected to.)

We should empower tikanga Māori. Moana Jackson’s recent reflections on how speech is balanced with community wellbeing and positive relationships on the marae ātea and whare tīpuna provide a framework which could be replicated elsewhere, without involving the authority of the state.

And we should ask ourselves what we really owe to people who are being deliberately insincere, particularly through coordinated campaigns of misinformation and aggression. Digital platforms like Facebook and Twitter are already facing a reckoning on this front, as the harms that they enable become increasingly undeniable. YouTube’s recent banning of Alex Jones is another example. Freedom of expression supposed to serve truthfulness and democratic ends, so we aren’t wrong to question its utility when it delivers precisely the opposite.

Philosophy can help in this, but it does a disservice to invoke it uncritically. As Mill warned, without continued scrutiny, good ideas can go bad: “Instead of a vivid conception and a living belief, there remain only a few phrases retained by rote; or, if any part, the shell and husk only of the meaning is retained, the finer essence being lost.”

I can’t think of a more eloquent way to describe what free speech absolutists have done to the principle that they purport to defend.


Categories: Democracy, Human rights, Media
David Hall
About the author

David Hall

David Hall is a political theorist based at The Policy Observatory. He has a strong interest in intergenerational policy issues, including climate change. He recently completed his D.Phil in Politics at the University of Oxford and his research interests including forestry policy, immigration policy and political psychology. He has contributed writing to the New Zealand Listener, the New Zealand Herald, The Spinoff, the BWB Text series (forthcoming), The Journal of Urgent Writing, Auckland Art Gallery’s Reading Room journal, and the Pure Advantage media platform.