When does free speech become license?

Today’s court ruling against journalist Andrew Bolt’s critical printed comments in relation to fair-skinned Aborigines has again ignited the “freedom of speech” debate: Ruling against Andrew Bolt will harm healthy debate, say libertarians | Herald Sun.

The libertarian position that all speech should be unshackled, un-monitored, uncensored is frought with problems. Generally, I am quite happy in most discourse to engage in unfettered argument. Sometimes the unbridled “free speech” that erupts from an impassioned position releases creative possibilities that swing the discussion onto a new plane. On the other hand, I can also play out enough rope to hang myself. If I want to avoid “hoisting myself on my own petard” I have to temper the freedom of my tongue (or keyboard) with discipline. And there’s the rub. Discipline according to who’s standards? In a relativistic climate, it becomes a difficult question to answer. Unless one voluntarily subscribes to a code of conduct, it is difficult to apply the kind of inner discipline that releases the full benefit of freedom of expression.

How do I give the best and fullest display of my thoughts and arguments in public discourse (thus exercising true freedom of speech)? I first have to consider the values upon which I base my thinking and allow them to shape my words. Then again, what we say will ultimately reveal our values anyway.

Will the court decision be helpful in proscribing what can and can’t be said and maintaining the right to protection from vilification? Libertarians argue no, it simply brings those so vilified into sharper focus and makes them targets for further slander and defamation.  On the other hand, the ruling pulls us into line as a community and shows that, even if we see value systems as relative, true freedom for oneself is rarely achievable outside of consideration of what it means to be “free together.”

Published by wonderingpilgrim

Not really retired but reshaped and reshaping. Now a pilgrim at large ready to engage with what each day brings.

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