Liberty Victoria’s decision to reward Gillian Triggs with its annual Voltaire Award is a perfect example of the left’s perverse interpretation of freedom of speech.
Today, the Victorian “civil liberties” advocacy organisation had this to say about Gillian Triggs, who as President of the Australian Human Rights Commission since 2012 has overseen some of the worst known abuses of section 18C:
This year’s Voltaire salutes Professor Triggs for her courageous stand on people’s rights, especially free speech. As she said recently, “It is important that we teach our children to be strong and to speak out for the values that are important to them. At the same time, it is important that we have legal protections in place where people are silenced by hate speech or don’t have the power to speak back.”
If you think that doesn’t quite line up with what Voltaire said, you would be right. Voltaire was a French enlightenment philosopher who was famously credited as saying “I do not agree with what you have to say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it.” His target was the establishment of the day, which in France was the powerful Catholic Church.
In contrast, Triggs is a member of the modern bureaucratic establishment who explicitly rejected Voltaire in The Australian in 2013, saying that “Freedom of speech is alive and well in Australia but, with respect to Voltaire, we will not defend to the death those who abuse this right by vilifying others on the ground of race.” In recent years, Triggs’ presidency at the Commission has seen the brutally mismanaged 18C case against the Queensland University of Technology students, and the obviously frivolous complaint against the late Bill Leak.
Liberty Victoria is ostensibly a civil libertarian organisation, but for the most part promotes a predictable left wing line about human rights. It is this left wing interpretation of human rights that would lead it – and other organisation like it – to find no inconsistency with awarding a free speech award to a person who readily administers laws designed to chill freedom of speech.
As the quotes above show, the left sees freedom of speech as something to be managed by the state. Within that worldview, you have powerful people who have excessive free speech, and who “abuse” their free speech by being hateful. At the other end of the ledger, there are people who are in some way silenced by the excessive free speech of the powerful.
The logical end point of this illogical premise is to establish even more powerful authorities and bureaucracies to police this abuse and redistribute freedom under the law. As New York University professor Ulrich Baer recently argued in the New York Times in a piece regarding the violent protests at American universities against the presence of conservative speakers:
The idea of freedom of speech does not mean a blanket permission to say anything anybody thinks. It means balancing the inherent value of a given view with the obligation to ensure that other members of a given community can participate in discourse as fully recognized members of that community. Free-speech protections — not only but especially in universities, which aim to educate students in how to belong to various communities — should not mean that someone’s humanity, or their right to participate in political speech as political agents, can be freely attacked, demeaned or questioned.
To Baer, the radical campus activists have their hearts in the right place because by physically stopping voices from being heard they are ensuring “that other members of a given community can participate in discourse as fully recognised members of that community.”
To the left, Triggs truly is a free speech hero because she is in a position to punish those people exercising free speech in the “wrong” way.
This is in contrast to the classical liberal tradition which explains that human dignity comes from equality under the law. When society respects individual autonomy and operates under universal principles such as freedom of speech, there is no imbalance that needs to be addressed.
Triggs and her allies only believe in the freedom of speech they agree with. By awarding a free speech prize to Triggs, Liberty Victoria not only makes a mockery of Voltaire, but also of themselves.
Morgan Begg is a research fellow at the Institute of Public Affairs
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