Just two months, The Spectator published my explanation of the distinction between the right to know and the right to free speech. It argued that the right to free speech was a higher principle than a right to know. In fact, the “right to know” sounds like a left-wing slogan for the Teachers’ Union. But this is what I said:
As most Speccie readers would know, I stand unashamedly for free speech; even speech that might offend or insult. Speech is not only natural to human beings; it is, in fact, the defining characteristic of what it is to be a human being for speech is the expression of human reason. Human speech is definitive of our political natures, that we are naturally at home in the company of our fellows. In many instances, our language defines our borders.
At its grandest, human speech allows us to explain to our fellows our opinion about what is advantageous and just, even our opinions of the nature of God. That is why we can also say that any argument for free speech will axiomatically exclude any call to personal violence and any resort to irrational terms such as abusive or obscene swearing.
In November last year, the left-wing Guardian equated free speech with the right to know. Other media have since continued to follow suit with their own attempt to articulate a ‘right to know’. It is, however, important to recognise that media publishers have a pecuniary incentive to publish opinions which would make the asserted right to know subject to their criterion of who is worthy of knowing; namely the person who pays and what you need to know is only what that opinionated journalist wants you to know.
There cannot be, therefore, a ‘right to know’ in the same sense that there is a natural right to speak. Knowledge is derivative from common sense experiences but it is only through human reason speech that our common senses are made intelligible in speech.
The power of speech is natural to human beings even if we initially have to learn a particular language. It allows us to declare our opinions regarding all matters, but especially political matters. The natural right to free speech, therefore, is a political right; and it is precisely because free speech is essentially political that tyrannical regimes oppress it.
No sensible person would call Australia a tyranny – yet. However, left-wing governments of all political persuasions have taken to enacting laws that legalise the most vicious actions while suppressing under penalty even the most reasonable objections to those laws. Where it will end depends whether our freedom to speak freely is protected or suppressed.
Perhaps the right to free speech might not seem to matter when those same governments are gleefully killing the future generation and the Commonwealth is busy filling the void with foreigners. But there will come a time when neither you nor I will be able to complain about these excesses because governments will be responding to the demands of a different electorate.
It is not difficult to see that free speech is the most precious of political rights that exist. Every parliament in Australia grants immunity to every parliamentarian for every statement that parliamentarians make in the Parliament. Why, we must ask, should parliamentarians be permitted to further their own political objects, subject only to the leniency extended to them by their fellows, while citizens are restrained by the chilling effect of a defamation writ.
The natural right to free speech should be extended to every Australian by an amendment to the Constitution. With such a right, the onus of justifying any limit on the right would fall to those who would need to prove that the limit was necessary for the reasonable conduct of political life.
I will add only the following:
Just yesterday, the daily press published their front pages blacked out of all news. How was this a right to know? I’ve read articles in the Nine Network’s tabloids that would have been improved by being blacked out. What we are witnessing, however, is the media’s demand for a right to free speech that is as absolute as that of our politicians in their high towers. They disguise it as a ‘right to know’.
Well, here is something that we already know: section 18c of the Racial Discrimination Act defines human speech as an ‘act’ and rather than come straight out and ban our right to speak freely, 18c bans an ‘act’ that is likely to ‘offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate’ a person or group. The slyness in that drafting speaks volumes, as does the fact that it was a product of the Whitlam government.
It is an expression of the great socialist experience, everyone can live together if we just have sufficient laws to suppress the differences and to stamp out any speech that might express revulsion for those differences.
By itself, the media’s right to know is an advertising invention, a gimmick to justify the financial advantage of powerful interests, while reserving the right to free speech to a privileged minority.
Whatever you might read elsewhere, there is only a right to free speech. That right is a natural right, a fundamental right to which every citizen is entitled and until the media recognise your right to speak freely they are not entitled to lay their exclusive claim to such a right.
David Long is a retired solicitor and economist.
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