Free speech, censorship and the left


By Martin Schenke and Zanny Begg

At a range of protests organised by students over the last month, activists have put forward the demand to "shut down" meetings of right-wing organisations. There have been calls in Sydney to shut down the homophobic Liberty Christian Ministry at Sydney University and the Liberal Party state conference at the University of NSW and in Brisbane to shut down Alexander Downer's public forum at Griffith University.

The same debate surfaced during 1998 and '99 over how to approach Pauline Hanson, some on the left arguing that we should demand "No free speech for racists".

Among those who oppose free speech for the right, there are two essential approaches proposed. One strand argues that we should call on the state to ban ideas detrimental to working-class interests. The other calls for "popular censorship", in which a militant minority forcibly "shuts down" the meetings of its opponents.

State censorship

Calling on the state to ban the ideas of the right is dangerously naive. Although the government may oppose the extremism of the far right, it agrees with many of their policies. Far-right groups can be an effective pressure point for capitalist governments, shifting the terrain of the debate against the progressive movement.

Calls for the state to ban a figure like Pauline Hanson only feed illusions that she is a more dangerous racist than the government. Many of the racist, homophobic and prejudiced ideas campaigned for by far-right organisations such as One Nation, the Lone Fathers Association or Liberty Christian Ministry are encouraged, supported or even made into legislation by the "respectable" members of the Labor and Liberal parties.

When Howard wanted to push through the native title legislation, why would he ban One Nation? Howard, in fact, was quick to defend Hanson's right to free speech. Hanson in turn helped lend legitimacy to the government's attacks on migrants and Aboriginal people.

More ominously for the progressive movement, when the state has censored the right it has often used the legislation against its real enemies - the left.

During the struggle against fascist groups in Boston in the mid-1970s, socialists in the US had to have out the same debate. Socialist activist Farrell Dobbs explained, "Even if the government does something to curb the rights of the fascists, all that happens in the last analysis is that the rulers get a new pretext for attacking the anti-capitalist forces. They will piously claim to be moving in a perfectly fair-minded way against 'extremists' on both sides of the controversy."

Feminists who have argued for pornography to be banned have been shocked to find that the government continues to turn a blind eye to sexist portrayals of women but has been quick to use censorship laws to ban or restrict lesbian and gay erotica.

There are already a raft of restrictions on free speech which make it hard for the left to organise, from laws which ban paste-ups to legislation which restricts our ability to organise a picket line or strike. Giving left support for laws which make it harder to organise or put across a point of view will only further hurt those who want to swim against the mainstream - primarily the left.

'Popular' censorship

Some on the left understand that the state is an oppressive institution and call instead on militant demonstrations to deny free speech to the right. But this strategy is also flawed.

The only way to defeat the right is to marginalise it politically. The arguments put forward by right-wing organisations such as One Nation need to be countered. We can be confident that our political positions are in the interests of the working class and we can convince people of them if given a hearing.

But when the left tries to silence rather than politically defeat the right, it allows right-wing groups to protest that their freedoms have been denied, and a new debate detached from the original one opens up. Bigots will argue that they have a right to free speech, and thus divert attention away from the real issue: their racism and bigotry.

This point was conclusively proven through the campaign against Hanson. While many people opposed Hanson's views, some nevertheless defended her right to speak as they would their own right. Where the anti-racist movement was focused on demands such as "No free speech for racists", it lost popular support. Hanson tried to claim "victim" status by complaining that she was being "silenced" by "socialists".

The mainstream media, with their own racist agenda, picked up on this issue and twisted its focus onto Hanson's "right to free speech" rather than reporting on her racist views.

Of course, the notion that Hanson's free speech was in jeopardy, when she graced the front cover of every major daily for at least six months, was absurd. But this red herring distracted attention from the racist content of her views and diminished support for the anti-racist movement.

Most people have an innate respect for free speech, and for good reason. Greater freedom and democracy make it easier for working-class and progressive organisations to exist. It is easier for the left to operate in a country which allows greater (although still limited) freedoms, such as Australia, than in a place where people are jailed for voicing opposing views, such as Burma.

When the left tries to prevent right-wing tendencies from convening or speaking, it puts itself on the wrong side of a democratic issue. As Noam Chomsky said in the documentary Manufacturing Consent, "If you believe in freedom of speech, then you believe in freedom of speech for views you don't like ... otherwise you're not in favour of freedom of speech."

By behaving in an apparently repressive manner, activists demonstrate a pessimistic attitude about their ability to win the argument politically and risk alienating themselves from the very people they are trying to draw into action.

Socialists and free speech

Rights of any kind cannot be defended in the abstract, but need to be considered and applied within a certain social and political context.

Defending freedom of speech took on a different meaning during the Russian Revolution, when the Bolsheviks were attempting to further a revolution while civil war and famine ravaged the country. During this crisis, those opposing the revolution sought to print and distribute newspapers which actively supported a war for the overthrow of the revolution and the establishment of a pro-capitalist state. The Bolsheviks wanted to retain freedom of the press but during wartime were forced to ban the papers of those supporting the white terror.

Restrictions on freedom of speech need to be justified within a greater context, and should never be considered as a permanent measure. Revolutionaries should aim to create a society with the maximum possible freedoms, in which reactionary ideas such as racism disappear, not because they are banned, but because support for them has evaporated.

In capitalist society we should not have any illusions that defending free speech means that we all have equal ability to put across our views; we are not on a level playing field. Rupert Murdoch has a greater degree of free speech than those who write for Resistance magazine. Politicians can air their views more easily than working people can.

But for those committed to changing society for the better, the question is how to gain mass support for progressive views. Trying to ban the views of our opponents won't further this aim.