Paul Moon: Freedom of speech is under threat.
The freedom to offend the powerful is not equivalent to the freedom to bully the relatively disempowered.” Jelani Cobb, New Yorker magazine.

While freedom of speech is meaningless if we don't defend the freedom of the person who thinks differently, we must also recognise that we don't all share equal and free access to the avenues of free expression.

I DEFEND THE RIGHT of Bob Jones to write obnoxious columns in the NZ Herald. That's one of the reasons why I generally support the open letter that he and a bunch of other New Zealanders have signed warning that 'freedom of speech is under threat in the country's universities."

The letter goes on to say that a debate cannot be confined to views that are deemed to be acceptable, while views that are judged "offensive, unwise, immoral, or wrong-headed" are censored out and sent to sit in the corner, to supposedly remain in obscurity for all time.

The man behind the letter is Auckland University of Technology's History Professor Paul Moon. He told the media that "kneejerk calls from Police and the Human Right Commission to introduce hate-speech laws after recent attacks on ethnic communities will have the unintended consequence of suppressing free speech. Education, open debate and understanding will change racist and intolerant views – not censorship."

Rosa Luxemburg.
On the issue of free speech I think Professor Moon would probably agree with Rosa Luxemburg. She observed that freedom of speech is meaningless unless it means the freedom of the person who thinks differently. And that includes racists, sexists and bigots.

However Rosa does not stop here and, I think, this is the point where Rosa and me part company with Professor Moon, his fellow signatories, and various liberal misconceptions.

Rosa wrote:

"Every right of suffrage, like any other political right, is not to be measured by some sort of abstract scheme of “justice,” or in terms of any other bourgeois-democratic phrases, but by the social and economic relationships for which it is designed."

Bearing this in mind we must put aside the purely formal and abstract understanding of free speech, that ignores that, under present social and economic arrangements, a small number of us have lot louder voices than the rest of us. We don't all share the same free and equal access to the avenues of free expression

So someone like Brian Edwards, one of the signatories to the letter, is more likely to pop up in the media than you and I. Speaking just personally, I'm not expecting to write a column for the NZ Herald anytime soon. Nor am I'm expecting to be invited on to  RNZ'S The Panel. Indeed, as someone of socialist persuasion, I'm not even going to get invited to write for Labour-lovin'  blogs like The Standard or The Daily Blog. Liberals, you see, aren't as liberal as they think they are.

But we on the socialist left value freedom of speech because we are committed to building a society where we all can decide matters of public concern democratically, as genuine equals. And that means confronting the fact that the vast majority of people have no access to or control of the means of communication in society, which are currently owned and controlled by a small handful of capitalist media oligarchs. I don't think Brian Edwards or Bob Jones, or Professor Moon for that matter, will be joining us in this struggle. Indeed all the signatories to this letter are beneficiaries of the status quo and so have a stake in defending it.

While Paul Moon might say that "education, open debate and understanding will change racist and intolerant views', we must also continue to oppose and disrupt the actions of individuals and organisations that seek to subordinate, harm, scapegoat or marginalise others. Freedom of speech is never absolute.

As New Statesman columnist Laurie Penny observes: "Freedom of speech does not mean that the powerful must be allowed to speak uninterrupted and the less powerful obliged to listen." Freedom of speech does not mean that it occurs uninterrupted, in a vacuum, without consequences. So Bob Jones can be racist and sexist if he wants to but he should expect to be called out about it.

Freedom of speech also includes other people's freedom to disagree - and that disagreement can take the form of protests and demonstrations.


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