“I don’t agree with what you say but I will defend to the death your right to say it”, the immutable words attributed (albeit incorrectly) to Voltaire remains the catch cry of all that defiantly defend the cause of free speech, and it is a cause for which I will lend my heartfelt support at any turn.
The freedom to speak is inseparable from the freedom to think and the freedom of conscience is irrefutably more inalienable than the freedom from being offended. It is not only dangerous to defend humanity from the immeasurable infliction of offence, but it is also unnecessary.
It is dangerous because to progress we must risk offence and there is no immediate merit in being offended. There is also no means by which to assure that any offence felt is valid. Darwin’s Theory of Evolution was offensive to Christian sensibilities, overt homosexuality was offensive to TV audiences, yet that offence felt is now recognised as illegitimate, regardless of how sincerely felt at the time.
It is also ultimately unnecessary to enforce any legal restriction on speech because society has a means by which to restrict those thoughts that are inherently offensive. Any person who chooses to utilise their free speech to express views immediately accept the risk of absorbing a social cost for their expression.
If a person expresses a view that is racist they may deservedly face ostracisation, condemnation, financial implications, and social isolation. This allows for a malleable penalty upon them that can adapt to the full context of what was said and allows for a continuously evolving reaction in line with broader community desires; whilst at the same time providing no draconian powers to silence to any individual or body.
A person’s thoughts cannot be controlled however he or she will usually choose to abstain from expressing offensive thoughts because they fear moral judgment for those thoughts. It is a system that generally works well except against those few that do not fear ostracisation or instead lavish it. The cost of allowing these trolls to ramble on until they are forgotten is the unavoidable price to pay to ensure our right to one day challenge accepted norms or authority will never be in question.
For this to work however there is an imperative to not confuse public backlash as an infringement on free speech. It is a vital continuation of free speech to ensure this social construct continues to function. You have the freedom to say something racist, I have the freedom to say you’re a racist. You have the freedom to say that you believe whatever you want, I have the freedom to mock those beliefs.
There is a single qualifier to freedom of speech and that is speech that directly encites an act of violence. If it is deemed to have directly caused a physical act then it must be seen as an extension of that act and therefore bearing the appropriate consequences. But these instances are rare and usually obvious.
Israel Folau has the right to believe that all gay people are going to hell, he has the right to say it, he has the right to broadcast it to his 300,000 followers. This is a right I will defend. But he must accept that we have a right to say that he is prejudiced. We have a right to say his statement could cause young men and women to kill themselves. We have the right to say he has lost our respect. Sponsors have the right to say they no longer want to be associated with him.
Freedom of speech is sacred, but just because you believe the content of your speech is sacred to your particular beliefs does not earn it any immunity from my sacred right to speak back.
Israel chose to utilise his free speech to tell every gay Australian Rugby Fan that has cheered him on for half a decade that he believes they are going to hell. He will now pay the price for a society voicing their disgust at such hatred coming from someone who had been a hero to so many. It is not a restraint on his freedom of speech if in the future he chooses not to express these views, it is because we as a community have successfully utilised ours.