The argument over free speech has now extended into the farcical.
On Wednesday US time, during the discussion of failed US President Donald Trump's impeachment, Marjorie Taylor Greene, a Republican congresswoman and QAnon supporter, wore a mask with the word "censored" emblazoned across it. She wore the mask while speaking in Congress - because apparently using the microphone to speak was not enough free speech for the conspiracy-loving politician.
Our own politicians are also promoting all brands of nonsense, humiliating Australians on the world stage. Acting Prime Minister Michael McCormack compared the powerful Black Lives matter movement to a band of violent fools storming the US Capitol last week, and was backed up by LNP senator Matt Canavan. Unloved backbencher Craig Kelly, the federal member for Hughes, continues to promote untested remedies for COVID-19 without a word of reprimand from his political masters. George Christensen, the member for Manila, promoted the falsehood that the invasion of the Captiol was a bunch of antifascists (Antifa) in disguise. Help me, God.
Now Dave Sharma, the federal member for Wentworth, bangs on about free speech.
I dont think I can help either McCormack, Christensen or Kelly, who must be beholden to mystery interests - otherwise why would they behave so strangely? But Dave Sharma, former diplomat, should be another matter, right? Seems like a well-educated guy. Sharma said the deplatforming of Trump from Twitter and elsewhere was "chilling". And, more or less, be careful what you wish for.
The UN General Assembly adopted the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights in 1966. Basically, it says yeah, we all have the right to have an opinion, and to express ourselves freely. But - and this is quite a big but - when we exercise our freedoms, we also have to exercise our responsibilities. For example, that freedom may be "subject to certain restrictions", such as respect for the rights or reputations of others and "the protection of national security or of public order, or of public health or morals".
Human Rights Commissioner Ed Santow says international human rights law recognises people can generally say what they want.
"But free speech has never been absolute. For example, almost all countries prohibit speech that incites violence and racial hatred. Just as my right to swing my fist ends where your nose begins, our personal freedoms must accommodate our impact on the people around us. Human rights law provides a tried-and-true method of ensuring that, when rights come into conflict, everyone is respected equally."
And Santow says that while the Australian constitution protects freedom of political communication, other types of speech aren't protected in Australian law.
"If Australia had a national Human Rights Act, it would help us strike a principled balance between free speech and a range of other rights, like privacy and freedom from hateful speech," he says.
One of Australia's leading defamation barristers, who declined to be named but trust me, very leading, agreed and said Australia urgently needs a bill of rights which would balance free speech with privacy. But in any case, Australian speech is already limited: "Australians are not free to mislead, vilify or defame - there are plenty of laws to stop free speech and they are necessary." Good point.
Anyhow, I think I have found the solution to the complete ignorance of what free speech actually means in this country. Meet Kath Gelber, professor of politics and public policy at the University of Queensland and deadset expert on freedom of speech. Let's crowdfund a trip to Canberra for Gelber, and force our politicians to take an exam after they have listened to her.
Gelber says there are two different dimensions to freedom of speech: the legal and the philosophical. There's a common law protection, free speech by historical precedent, which Gelber describes as pretty weak; and since 1992, there is also a freedom of political communication, but again, that has limits (like not broadcasting in the lead-up to the election, or not standing right on top of voters when you are canvassing). Also, don't use carriage services to threaten others. Australia also has strong hate speech laws which have not been tested in the High Court, says Gelber.
But the longtime reseacher into freedom of speech points out many of those promoting their own view of free speech have blithely promoted the exact opposite when it suits them. Remember when those who worked on offshore detention were not permitted to discuss offshore detention? And as for free speech, you will not find a more determined group of people to stop it than those who look after the social media accounts of our current governments. Block and delete at will, especially when critiquing government policy.
You could also argue that the government's war on universities, particularly on the arts and humanities, is repression and social control. How better to stop an analysis of the poor performance of governments than to stop the courses which teach analysis of social policy?
Gelber is clear that free speech, just like any other human right, has limits and carries with it responsibilities.
"When you speak in a way that harms others, you can be legitimately regulated in my opinion - and those who have a lot of power, such as politicians, have a stronger responsibility," she says.
"The greater your voice, the more seriously you should take your responsibility not to harm."
Has anyone told the Prime Minister, the acting Prime Minister, or any of the goblins currently in power?
- Jenna Price is a visiting fellow at the Australian National University and a regular columnist.