The thinning line between censorship and freedom of speech

The thinning line between censorship and freedom of speech
Peter Dunne

Wellington, May 2, 2019
In the wake of the Christchurch terrorism incident, specifically the publication online of the alleged killer’s so-called manifesto, the topic of hate speech and how to deal with it has come more strongly into public focus.

There have been calls for stricter regulation of social media, with the Prime Minister being invited to Co-Chair with the President of France an international meeting on the subject.

 At the other end of the scale has been the brief call from a Labour MP to consider the regulation of all media content to control hate speech.

These reactions highlight the extent of the dilemma.

Everybody knows there is a problem to be dealt with, but few seem completely confident about what the precise problem is, let alone how it should be dealt with.

Diversity of views

At the extreme edges, such as the Christchurch alleged killer’s diatribe, there would be close to unanimity about the vileness and unacceptability of what he was promoting, but the problem is there would be a considerable diversity of view about how that should be dealt with, let alone the range of other views of varying degrees of marginal unacceptability to the mainstream that are being expressed in so many different quarters every day of the week.

It is the classic dilemma of censorship. While there are some views, actions and expressions that most reasonable people would readily agree are beyond the realms of acceptability in our generally pluralistic society that therefore deserve some form of proscription, there is far less agreement about the point at which that absolute unacceptability starts to blur and the level of affront diminishes from near universal to individual.

The question then becomes how to prevent the regulation of the unacceptable intruding into the views and mores of other groups or individuals in our society.

A medical analogy

A medical analogy may be relevant here. There are many diseases known to be fatal or seriously deleterious to health which there is a universal determination to stamp out, as and when they appear. But there are also many other viruses, ailments and conditions that are far less threatening, and where the best way of dealing with is allowing exposure to them so that people build up an immunity to their toxicity, and thus defeat them.

Medicine’s constant challenge is to work out which is which.

Acceptability and otherwise

So too should it be with hate speech, and the ways to deal with it. Views that are out of step with the natural law – views promoting ethnic superiority, racial division, and the like – fall clearly within the category of general unacceptability.

But the picture is far less clear when it comes to the treatment of political ideologies, religious and social philosophies, diverse lifestyles and so on.

In general, these will fall into the category of individual responses and reactions, and we should be extremely wary of even attempting to regulate these, lest we curb freedom of thought and expression, and the other freedoms enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Guarding freedom

Indeed, in one of his last addresses to the United Nations, President Obama made the point that while the issue of hate speech required attention, we had to be on guard lest it become a way of limiting our exposure to all range of other non-mainstream views that we ought to be able to debate and consider freely in an open society. Exposure to the absurdity of many of them, he argued, was to best way to ridicule and defeat them.

Even before the events in Christchurch, we were starting to see in New Zealand and elsewhere the emergence of a new intolerance for the expression of contrary views which may challenge contemporary norms in a number of sensitive areas, and an accompanying unwillingness to listen too carefully to what was being said if it contravened in any way that new normal.

The risk now is that in the wake of the unspeakable horrors in Christchurch and Sri Lanka fresh new, more rigid boundaries are drawn about acceptability which limit the right to free speech and thought, without necessarily limiting, let alone stopping, the violence of the terrorist fanatics.

Limiting the unacceptable

But it is not unreasonable to place limits on what is generally acknowledged as unacceptable, anti-social behaviour, and, like the medical scientist recording the spread of pandemics, to use all the technology and other skills at our disposal to track them down, and where possible, eliminate them.

Indeed, in both cases, it would be wrong and irresponsible not to so act.

At the same time, in both instances, we need to continue to ensure that the best long term resolution to many other distasteful situations is to allow exposure to them to build up long-term immunity, and defeat them that way.

These are challenging and uncertain times, with many flailing about in search of solutions. But the tricks will be to determine where the line on acceptability is drawn, and whether well-meaning politicians, wanting ever so desperately to be seen and applauded for doing the right thing, can retain the degree of reality and dispassion necessary to actually do so. 

We cannot preserve the freedoms we enjoy today, and which we are so proud to acknowledge our ancestors fought for, by placing unnecessary restraints upon them.     

Peter Dunne is a Minister of the Crown under the Labour and National governments from 1999 to 2014. He lives in Wellington.

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