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Freedom of speech: some questions for Russell Blackford

January 12, 2016

I have just been reading some of Russell Blackford’s book, Freedom of Religion and the Secular State. This is a challenging issue in our current society and Blackford’s book deals with many controversial issues of our society.

I was most interested in his chapter on freedom of speech and what I read was generally excellent. I broadly agreed with and accepted Blackford’s thesis and the framework he drew, but any ethical theory is only as good as it’s application. Hence I wanted to ask Russell some questions to ‘test’ the application of his theory and help make some judgements on a number of contemporary ethical situations.

Blackford on Freedom of Speech

Blackford’s basic thesis is no single framework or worldview should be imposed by state coercion. The state should not silence opposing views unless ‘they lead to violence or impossibly hostile conditions for citizens to live their lives’ (p.169).

Blackford’s proposal, if applied, would allow society very free and open speech with the state offering very little control or suppression of competing voices. Blackford argues for minimal interference by the state with it’s citizens speech (p.170).

“Citizens may influence the social environment through their speech and expression, but forego the power to suppress the speech and expression of others” (p.169)

The rationale for this freedom Blackford argues is that ‘there is public interest in permitting debate that is not so restrictive of the parties involved. This allows them to express themselves passionately, emotively, and loyally’ (p.173)

However Blackford does not envisage complete freedom of speech as he does draw some limits. He suggests we need to have provisions for ‘threats, defamation and fraudulent representations’ (p.170). Yet Blackford is critical of suppressing speech simply because if causes offense. He proposes that ‘most forms of speech are not directly harmful’ (p.171). Curiously he separates harm from offense, where he seems to understand harm in a ‘direct’ physical sense, where it incites violence or causes an intense emotional reaction. Blackford warns against prohibiting speech that is merely offensive: ‘what may be offensive to one person, may be of value to another’ (p.174) and ‘care must be taken to avoid a tyranny of the sensitive’ (p.185).

Blackford’s vision for freedom of speech is a very libertarian and free. Competing voices should be allowed and not suppressed, even if we disagree vehemently. This is a potentially exciting vision for society, where all people get to participate and say what they want. This will be as Blackford acknowledges, ‘inherently messy’ but it would be free.



There is much to commend in Blackford’s thesis, however the real test of any ethic is its application. Does it work? How will it work?

So I have five questions to ask Russell in how his ethic (and a secular ethic) might be applied to a modern context with modern (real-life) examples and situations.

Questions in application

  1. How and where do we ‘draw the line’? It’s fine to allow freedom of speech but as soon as we allow exceptions, or require ambiguous tests of emotional reaction, the line becomes quite blurry as to what merely causes offense and what causes a ‘high emotional reaction’.
  2. Should foreign anti-vaccination and anti-abortion activists be allowed to enter Australia?
  3. Should a news reporter be allowed to criticise the Anzacs on Anzac Day?
  4. Within this framework and given that we should suppress speech simply because if causes harm, is there such a thing as ‘hate speech’? If so, what would constitute ‘hate speech’? Opposing gay marriage?
  5. Would it be possible in this society for Christian believers to say things which are consistent with their passionately held beliefs, e.g. that people are ‘sinful’ and that ‘homosexuality is wrong’?

I’m really keen to hear how Russell answers these and applies the ethic, because this has enormous implications on how we conduct public debate in our society.

From → Ethics

One Comment
  1. matt permalink

    Ethics, free speech etc. In my view we live in a world that is ruled by violence and the threat of violence and by the strong over the weak. Any ideology is only as strong as its supporters. Good ideas should stand on their own merits but unfortunately they do not. Ideas stand based on the force available to their proponents.

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