Has the free speech horse Bolted?

Monday 4 April 2011 4:59 AM

Whatever one's personal opinion either of News Limited's columnist Andrew Bolt as a person or, of the case now before the court -- and it's clear opinions vary widely on both, the unfolding story has occasioned much worthwhile and important debate on the subject of free speech in a democracy. Regardless of the immediate outcome of the case, and of whether a high court appeal follows, modern Australia needs the discussion to continue.

Crikey.com's Margaret Simons has today published a defence of an earlier blog post, arguing that Bolt's loss in the case would be 'obnoxious' to us all. I tend to agree with her and other free speech defenders more than with exponents of the contrary view. However some careful nuancing will be needed throughout. Of the many qualifications that might be appended to the free speech argument, one which we hear a lot is incitement. The public expression of opinion, whether by prominent journalists or by local pub patrons, ought not to be hedged with fear of prosecution, provided that such expression does not have a fomenting effect on the kinds of extremism that threaten public safety.

It’s not a simple matter, of course. For who can predict which comment or which commentator will win the wrong kind of following, whatever their intent? Nevertheless the question of incitement must remain at the fulcrum of this essential discourse.