“I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”
The quotation often wrongly attributed to Voltaire is actually from Evelyn Beatrice Hall’s The Friends of Voltaire (1906). I suppose the reason it’s often associated with Voltaire is that the philosopher was an incredibly influential writer who throughout his life faced punishment due to censorship.
There’s a lot of truth in his words, especially for a journalist. What is free speech? Are we really entitled to it or is free speech and its definition far more fluid and interchangeable than initially conceived?
Free speech is not a right in Australia, at least not in the traditional sense.
Before undertaking journalism, I had the naive idea that it was a right; and that as a journalist I could write whatever I wanted. A quick stint in Media Law classes taught me very differently. Thankfully, here at The Newsroom, we have many a wise tutor who act as lawyers and editors extraordinaire – I dread to think how many lawsuits could have been filed against us for everything from defamation to perjury without their keen eye.
American pop-culture is most likely to blame for the assumption that we share the same laws. As RMIT lecturer Binoy Kampmark wrote this week, “[in Australia] free speech, it seems, is only as [sic] free as long as it is appropriate, tasteful and of good standing.”
There is no express provision for free speech in the Australian Constitution. For a country generally considered liberal democrat, our laws are somewhat skewed. On Sunday, Christine Milne declared her opposition to the Coalition’s proposed repeal of the notorious “Andrew Bolt Law”, section 18C of the Commonwealth Racial Discrimination Act 1975. The popular name of the law refers to the discomfiture of News Corp columnist, Andrew Bolt, in 2011 following his comments on “light-skinned” indigenous Australians. He lost the defamation case but declared it a victory for free speech.
I’ll leave with words of Henry Anatole Grunwald, the late editor of TIME magazine, who said: “Journalism can never be silent: That is its greatest virtue and its greatest fault. It must speak, and speak immediately, while the echoes of wonder, the claims of triumph and the signs of horror are still in the air.”
We’ll deal with the consequences later… – Benedicte Earl
Image from Walt Jabsco’s flickr photostream.