Freedom of Speech in an Age of Anxiety: Cope’s Presentation

The starting point of this discussion is the “age of anxiety” – war on terror as well as the coming election and at a local level, politicians trying to change normal living environments (eg: water, public safety, etc) to reduce risk in society.

Over the past decade, there has been an increasing censorship acts designed to moderate materials in books and video, and online. Internet censorship laws in particular have identified persons who have kept copies of banned materials.

[[Cope listed a series of censorship cases over the past decade, drawn in part from Frank Moorehouse’s work.]]

The first major reason for freedom of speech is the search for truth. The problem with this is that expressions of opinion may be regarded as a “true” opinion, but the expression of it can have consequences that go beyond the value of its expression. This has implications for suppress minority opinion.

The second major reason for freedom of speech is the notion of democracy. In order to participate equally in a social democracy, participants must have the information to act appropriately.

The third major reason for freedom of speech is that it provides a basis for problem solving in a democracy. Free speech is a basic resource for determining the issues associated with decision making in a public space. This differs from the notion of pure ‘democracy’ because it is not about voting for a representative government, but about exploration of issues arising in the community rather than representation.

The final major reason for freedom of speech is the notion of civil rights – this is a fundamental right, but it can bring about an argument for civil disobedience.

Regardless of what mechanisms are used to suppress information in society, they are historically not terribly successful. Indeed, in some cultures the very act of suppression is so suspicious an act that it encourages dissemination.

Freedom of speech is very different from freedom of expression. Qld Council of Civil Liberties is arguing for freedom of speech and not freedom of expression. It is better than 10 guilty persons go free than one innocent person is found guilty. Finding innocent people guilty is a failure of society in that it is a morally egregious attenuation of human rights for an innocent individual to be publically and privately ostricised for a crime they did not commit.

This is where sedition comes in. Suppression of opinion, in principle, should only occur where a clear and present danger can be demonstrated. The difficulty is for security services to be trusted to pull together sufficient evidence to demonstrate that expression of an opinion will cause harm. Even more difficult is the notion that politicians and other appointed individuals are adequately qualified for determining the criteria of what is harmful and who could be a dangerous person.

Once you start to regulate freedom of speech, particularly in terms of simple pornography, you begin to actually suppress content.

[[Cope discusses the refused classification of the film, Ken Park.]]

What the proposed internet censorship laws intend to do is to give power to local authorities to ban content and identify individuals who provide access to materials regarded as unacceptable content. We will have numerous “little Hitlers” going about and exercising power in the community in a manner which might not be regarded as morally sound. There are also proposed laws which restrict content available to indigenous people in the Northern Territory – so our indigenous people are treated like children. This is clearly morally questionable.

In Ireland, England and in New Zealand, sedition has been eliminated as a possible offence. Not so in Australia. The state probably should have the right to restrict speech where harm can occur. But there has to be a clear intention to incite violence and cause harm. The war on terror is not one of these circumstances. The language of the universal declaration of human rights – that there is a clear link between the existence of Osama Bin Laden and loss of human life – does not support the war on terror as an act of suppression. While Bin Laden’s speech may incite Muslims to acts of violence, including “martyrdom operations”, the war on terror is an act of violence itself and is morally questionable because the measures used to suppress opinions are in excess of the evidence of clear and present danger.

The most alarming legislation currently proposed is the Communication of Information (Terrorism and Crime) legislation gives any individual the rights to report any information found online as inciting terrorist or criminal acts. He only needs “reason to believe” that the content could be regarded as inciting criminal acts, and the act of reporting gives authorities the power to record and investigate all aspects of the “offending” person’s life.

The role of the civil liberties group is to act on behalf of citizens to question these laws. Anyone who is prepared to join the fight against attenuation of civil rights is welcome to join the Council.

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