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The state of Israel Folau echoes the state of free speech in this country. The words of one legendary writer warned us of this day.
“I disapprove of what you say but I will defend to the death your right to say it” is the noble declaration about free speech attributed to Voltaire in the biography by Elizabeth Beatrice Hall published in 1903.
Richard Di Natale, on the other hand, disapproves of what Alan Jones, Chris Kenny and Andrew Bolt have to say and seeks legislation to deny them the right to say it.
There are no reports of Jones, Kenny and Bolt advocating legislation to curb the torrent of personal abuse pouring out of Di Natale. The chances are all three would defend his right of free speech to abuse them but perhaps not to the death.
Free speech is the bedrock of a free society but not in its entirety.
Illegal speech, speech inciting illegalities and weaponised hate speech definitely should not qualify as “free”. Beyond that, it’s a case of striking a delicate and complex balance between free speech and moral outrage.
There is no question that Voltaire would have defended to the death Israel Folau’s right to claim that hell awaits drunks, homosexuals, adulterers, liars, fornicators, thieves, atheists and idolators.
It is interesting to note that on a conservative estimate those eight groups comprise around three-quarters of the world’s population, very few of them believe in hell, only the thieves among them are engaged in illegal activity by local standards and there is doubt whether hell would have the capacity to accommodate them all.
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Homosexuals were incensed by Folau’s remarks. Their intense moral outrage is understandable and has garnered more support across the community than Folau right to free speech.
This issue, however, is far too crucial to let go without profound reflection because any loss of any free speech should only be a last resort. Our way of life depends on the right to free speech and any part of it that’s lost is almost impossible to reclaim.
It is therefore well worth considering whether Voltaire’s views on the subject might still have relevance even after all this time.
Should free speech be curtailed just because it provokes moral outrage? It certainly should when it is malicious or unlawful but surely not if it is just politically incorrect or contrary to the views of Richard Di Natale.
Any legislated or enforced loss of free speech should be subject to a process at least as rigorous as the one being applied to the Adani coal mine. Furthermore, profound consideration should be given to the issue of whether the sector of society being shielded from free speech truly benefits from being singled out as a protected species.
And one loss of free speech can easily lead to another.
It is instructive to note that free speech protects moral outrage but by definition moral outrage seeks to limit free speech. There is widespread disquiet in Australia today that a rugby player can have his career terminated because he quoted from the bible.
Folau may be insensitive, regressive, bigoted and pig-headed but he is neither venal nor villain. Rebuke him by all means, but he doesn’t deserve to be ostracised.
Voltaire believed free speech is precious and worth fighting for. Richard Di Natale believes it is so harmful he is dying to get rid of it. The fact that Alan Jones, Chris Kenny and Andrew Bolt are still free to opine that Richard and Rugby Australia got it wrong tends to confirm conclusively that all those years ago, Voltaire got it right.