Freedom to offend

One person writes a series of statements about Aboriginal people. They are factually untrue. The statements themselves are offensive to some people. They are used in support of an argument which is also offensive to those people.

A few people write a series of statements about Aboriginal people. They're not really either true or false.  The statements are offensive to some people. They are not used in support of any argument or political position.

Imagine you are a lawmaker. Weigh those two scenarios. How do you treat them? Differently? The same?

But I deceive you. Because I have withheld the critical factor - not the subject of the statements, nor their truth, nor their offensiveness, nor their political value, but, uh, their authorship.

You see, the first set of statements were written by Andrew Bolt in the Herald Sun. For that reason, it was serious enough for Tony Abbott - defender of freedom - to wade in at the IPA and declare that
 if free speech is to mean anything, it’s others’ right to say what you don’t like, not just what you do. It’s the freedom to write badly and rudely. It’s the freedom to be obnoxious and objectionable. Free speech is not bland speech. Often, it’s pretty rough speech ... Speech that has to be inoffensive would be unerringly politically correct but it would not be free 
And if that wasn't clear enough,  that "expression or advocacy should never be unlawful merely because it is offensive."

The second set of statements was written, unfortunately for them, by some erstwhile Facebook users on a page called Aboriginal Memes. For this reason, it was serious enough for the Opposition - defender of community values - to wade in and say that
it's developing a policy on this issue and Facebook's refusal to take down the Aboriginal Memes page highlights the need for one.
Abbott himself told journalists that
... we really ought to look at whether the regulators need more power to offer to make takedown orders and so on ...
So now we know. Voltaire, who Abbott boringly and predictably quoted at the IPA - loved Andrew Bolt, hated memes.

This isn't some kind of political philosophy gotcha. This is not a "by your principle" slippery slope. This is a flat out contradiction which is incredibly problematic for somebody who claims to want to change laws in this area. Should we regulate on the basis of offence, or not? I tend to think not, and I don't much like the law Bolt was prosecuted under either. I'm not 100% attached to that position, but I'm pretty certain.

Tony Abbott doesn't seem to have any idea. He's trying to take both positions, and he can't.

Comments