Why free speech matters

Issue 
Rally for free speech took place in Barkly Square in the Melbourne suburb of Brunswick on May 8 2010. Photo: Margarita Windisch

Brian Walters, former Liberty Victoria president, former Free Speech Victoria vice-president and Greens candidate for the state seat of Melbourne, has long been a advocate of free speech. He is the author of Slapping on the Writs: Defamation, Developers and Community Activism.

On May 8, he addressed a rally in Brunswick, Melbourne, which called on the local Barkly Square shopping centre to end its ban on community stalls.

Barkly Square is a privately owned shopping mall. The rally was organised to condemn the privatisation of public space that is restricting free speech. The speakers gave many examples of where this was the case. Two examples given were Federation Square and Southern Cross train station.

Below is a transcript of Walters’ speech to the rally.

***

It is 65 years since the end of World War II, at least in Europe. It was the end of the war in Europe that led to the creation of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights three years later, over which an Australian attorney general, Doc Evatt, presided. He was the President of the UN when the Universal Declaration was passed unanimously.

Since then, there has been only one country in the Western world that has not acknowledged in its laws the rights expressed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. And that is Australia.

It was just a couple of weeks ago that Prime Minister Kevin Rudd said we were not going to have a Human Rights Act in Australia that would have protected the right of free speech in this country.

At the moment there is not a right, protected in law, to free speech. There is in Victoria to a limited extent. But we need to have a comprehensive protection of the right for freedom of expression.

Why does free speech matter?

It matters because in a democracy, if people cannot speak, if their voices are silenced, we will never learn from the community wisdom of different voices.

Some people say we cannot have offensive voices; we do not want to be offended by free speech. If that had happened, what would have been the situation with women’s suffrage? The suffragettes spoke out and they caused offence and if they had not done so, we would have stayed back in the dark ages.

The only way we move forward, and grow and develop, is by hearing different ideas. Words matter: they can offend; they can frighten; they can be very challenging. They can also inspire. It will often be the same words that hurt and inspire different people.

We have not found a way to silence the bad and have the good. We have to hear the debate about it or we will never grow from the sharing of ideas. Community is not some ether in the atmosphere; community is the communication that we have with each other. If you stifle communication, you stifle community.

Down here at Barkly Square shopping centre we are seeing something that is all too common. We are seeing the corporatisation of public space. We have had many examples now.

We had the example at Southbank — they said, “It’s private development at Southbank so we’re not letting anyone take any photographs.” Here is one of the places where tourists go and congregate and they had security offices say, “No, no, no, you can't take that photograph.” In the end that was ridiculed away, but we had to fight a campaign about it.

Look at Yarra Park, handed over to the Melbourne Cricket Ground so that they can expand their parking area. This is also with laws now permitting them to stop any placards or banners or public statements that they disagree with from being used — in what is, in fact, a public park.

It’s the same with Barkly Square. People go there as part of their daily business to shop and do the various things they need to do as part of being in this community.

Now corporations want to have shops — that’s fine. We understand that’s what they do, but don’t you stifle our community, don’t you tell people they can’t have a stall, don’t tell people you can’t have an expression of views; or that you can’t have the community interacting and exchanging ideas.

In 1917, some anarchists in New York put out some leaflets and they called for the overthrow of the government of the United States. They were people just on the streets of New York handing out leaflets. They were charged with treason. The case went all the way to the US Supreme Court.

These guys got 20 years’ jail for handing out leaflets. There were two dissenting judgments in the Supreme Court. They are great judgments and those two dissenting judgments have been the pivotal voice on free speech for the rest of the 20th century in the US and elsewhere.

One of them was Oliver Wendell Holmes who talked about the marketplace of ideas, the free trade of ideas. Isn't that ironic when we think of Barkly Square, a marketplace where they don’t want any ideas at all.

Give us free speech, for without free speech we will not have a full and flourishing community. When our young people want to take part in public life, they should be able to do so freely. So many young people don’t even bother to vote or take part because they think, “Well, why bother?”

Too often we’re saying to people: “Consume, conform, or get lost.” How much richer we would be if we let free speech flourish in our community.

If you like our work, become a supporter

Green Left is a vital social-change project and aims to make all content available online, without paywalls. With no corporate sponsors or advertising, we rely on support and donations from readers like you.

For just $5 per month get the Green Left digital edition in your inbox each week. For $10 per month get the above and the print edition delivered to your door. You can also add a donation to your support by choosing the solidarity option of $20 per month.

Freecall now on 1800 634 206 or follow the support link below to make a secure supporter payment or donation online.