The importance of free expression as a basic and valuable characteristic of western society cannot be underestimated. One of the difficulties inherent in discussing freedom of speech is that it contains what is often described as the paradox of freedom. The classical exposition of this paradox was described by John Stuart Mill in his essay On Liberty in Utilitarianism Etc: London (1910) p 83
"... there ought to exist the fullest liberty of professing and discussing, as a matter of ethical conviction, any doctrine, however immoral it might be considered."
In other words, unless the enemies of freedom possess the liberties which they are keen to abuse, then we deny the essence of what we ultimately stand for and are therefore no better than those to whom we are opposed. Or as Voltaire has been paraphrased,
"I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it."
(The corollary is that the actions and words of the enemies of freedom must be critically analysed in public debate. This is where supporters of a free society have failed miserably.)
On a more practical plane, freedom of speech serves many functions. One of its most important functions is that decision-making at all levels is preceded by discussion and consideration of a representative range of views. A decision made after adequate consultation is likely to be a better one which less imperfectly mirrors the opinions, interests and needs of all concerned, than a decision taken with little or no consultation. Thus freedom of speech is important at all levels in society. Yet it is most important for government. A government which does not know what the people feel and think is in a dangerous position. The government that muzzles free speech runs a risk of destroying the creative instincts of its people.
Freedom of speech is also important to government because when criticisms of a government are freely voiced, the government has the opportunity to respond and answer unfair comments and criticisms about its actions. On the other hand, when freedom of speech is restricted, rumours, unfair criticism, comments and downright falsehoods are circulated by word of mouth. These have a habit of spreading across the length and breadth of the country through conversation and surreptitiously circulated writings. The government is in no position to answer these views, because they are not publicly stated. It is in a government's interest to have criticisms in the public arena where it can answer its critics and correct its mistakes. The government generally has access to electronic and print media far in excess of individuals and groups. It is able to present its view only if the opposing views are in the open and known.
Finally, the freedom of speech is the single most important political right of citizens, although private property is required for its operation. Without free speech, no political action is possible and no resistance to injustice or oppression is possible. Without free speech elections would have no meaning at all. Policies of contestants become known to the public and become responsive to public opinion only by virtue of free speech. Between elections the freely expressed opinions of citizens help to restrain oppressive rule. Without this freedom it is futile to expect political freedom or, consequently, economic freedom. Thus freedom of speech is the sine qua non of a democratic society.
Freedom of speech involves toleration of a great deal of nonsense and even of matters which are in bad taste. There are those, among them notably Justice Douglas of the American Supreme Court, who have argued for near absolute freedom of speech and against the restrictions based on many of the common exceptions. In Roth v US 354 US 476 (1957) a case about obscenity, Justice Douglas said in dissent:
"The test of obscenity the Court endorses today gives the censor free range over a vast domain. To allow the State to step in and punish mere speech or publication that the Judge or jury thinks has an undesirable impact on thoughts but that is not shown to be part of unlawful action is drastically to curtail the First Amendment."
Problems arise where some people call for groups such as National Action to be made illegal as tending to encourage racism. In a recent incident at a University, where National Action had set up some tables to distribute literature, tables were overturned and groups of students shouted against racism. Those who attempt to resort to such tactics to stifle presentation of an opposing view give the impression that reason and logic are not on their side. Freedom of speech has as its necessary corollary the expression of a wide range of views, some of which of course will be unpalatable, or clearly wrong. However, the alternative of placing the agenda for public discussion in the hands of paternalistic bureaucrats (who as human beings will be fallible and will have subjective views and personal prejudices) whose rulings often cannot, or can only with difficulty and cost, be reviewed in the courts, is increasingly becoming the norm. It is an undesirable and unfortunate trend.
The attacks on Professor Geoffrey Blainey are symptomatic of developing trends. History demonstrates that problems have arisen in multi-racial, multi-lingual and multi-religious societies. Professor Blainey's view should be freely expressible as part of the public discussion about our immigration policy, along with any other views, without him being subjected to personal and vituperative abuse or threatened with violence. The process of public debate provides an opportunity for an evaluation of his views.
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