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Free Expression: How Free Should Speech Be?

How Free Should Speech Be?

By Bernard Darnton
Leader, Libertarianz.

We are separated from other species of animal by one thing. We are not the biggest, the fastest or the strongest. We have the ability to think. Each of us has the ability to consider, to ponder, to imagine, the ability to reflect, to believe, to judge. Without this ability we are small, weak, hairless apes. With this ability we are transformed into swift, powerful masters of our world.

Each of us is born with this complete freedom in the private world of our minds. The public face of that private freedom is freedom of expression, the freedom to sculpt our private thoughts into public words, to compare ideas and transmit our thoughts to others. Freedom of expression is the public acknowledgement of the freedom of thought that defines what it is to be human.

In a civilized society, freedom of expression must be protected at the highest level, at all costs. Freedom of expression requires tolerance.

We may not like everything we hear but we must tolerate a person's right to express himself. Perverse as it may seem, we must even tolerate the expression of intolerance.

This is probably the most difficult of tasks for a lover of freedom. We hear the views of people who stand against everything that is good and have to defend their right of expression against people who may have far purer motives but who misguidedly want to sacrifice our greatest freedom for more tangible goals.

There's a lot of talk at the moment about "hate speech". Jewish groups have called for a ban on British author and holocaust-denier David Irving who is planning a visit to New Zealand. In the wake of the attacks on Jewish cemeteries in Wellington calls for restrictions on racist speech have strengthened. At the same time, the terms of reference for a select committee inquiry into "hate speech" have just been finalised.

It's easy to draw a link between the expression of anti-Semitic views and the sort of deplorable violence that we've seen in the Bolton Street and Makara cemeteries, and from that come to a conclusion that the speech must be banned. While that reaction is understandable it is absolutely the wrong thing to do.

The best way to minimize the impact of this sort of thought is to expose it to full scrutiny. David Irving's bizarre views are demonstrably wrong and will not survive a rational argument. Banning the expression of his views will only have the effect of protecting his views from the arguments that will destroy them. He will claim he is the victim of a Jewish conspiracy to shut him up - and he will be partly right.

In many countries Hitler's manifesto Mein Kampf is banned. This is a mistake because it's not until you actually read the text of Mein Kampf that you realize it's nothing more than the uninteresting ramblings of a semi-literate fool.

The link between speech and action is not direct. Someone has to absorb an idea and then deliberately act on it. The vandalism and the arson that we have recently seen should be punished, as should any vandalism or arson.

The perpetrators of these acts chose to smash those headstones, chose to gouge swastikas into the lawn, and chose to burn down a chapel. All of these actions constitute actual harm, and are already illegal.

Banning the expression of opinions, no matter how vulgar those opinions are, costs us part of our civilization, part of our humanity. Bad ideas must be fought with good ideas. Ideas are products of our minds and our minds must be reasoned with and educated, not coerced.


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