An international perspective on freedom of speech

An international perspective on freedom of speech

Thomas Hanson

Free speech is the mechanism by which ideas and opinions are transformed into order and progress. It allows a collective of individuals to contend one another’s ideas and justify their own. Discussions are increasing, and in some cases, unsavory clashes form where boundaries should be drawn.

Free speech in Australia is not outlined specifically in a constitution. They have implemented the Australian Human Rights Commission which states the High Court has held that an implied freedom of political communication exists as an indispensable part of the system of representative and responsible government created by the Constitution.”

Many free speech protections also trickle down from the United Nations Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, but perhaps it is a drawback of the Australian system. To rely on high court interpretation and non-specific U.N. treaty appears unwise. Verifying free expression in the constitution may prove worthwhile.

There are reasonable exemptions outlined by the Attorney-General’s Department. Exemptions include defamation, national security, threatening, sexual harassment and inciting racial discrimination. However, the line appears to blur in regards to “hate speech.” Political Science Professor Katharine Gelber, from the University Of Queensland believes “Free speech is not absolute, and like any human right, free speech carries with it responsibilities, we have a responsibility to speak in ways that don’t harm other people.”

This attitude is reflected in UQ’s dreadful speech policy. It explicitly states that it forbids “offensive speech.” More conflicting opinions are being labeled as “harmful” or “offensive” to avoid the discussion completely. A University of Sydney lecturer displayed a map which listed some land masses as belonging to India rather than China, and, after supporters of the Chinese Communist Party claimed offensive speech violations, the presentation was censored and an apology issued.

Some find the university policies that include “offense” or “harm” as a limitation to free speech to be ineffective. Who defines hate speech? Exactly where is the line between unpopular opinion and hate speech? They are absolutely not the same thing. What is the definition of offensive? In what ways is speech harmful? 20th century history has shown us that, when these conflicts go unresolved, things can rapidly spiral out of control. We should leave speech alone as much as possible. Even though reprehensible ideas may be heard, it provides opportunity for these opinions to be publicly dismantled.

The speech climate in Australia functions reasonably well with the main issues arising on university campuses. The Department of Education’s review of University Freedom of Speech reported that some areas have a healthy environment of free speech. Contributors Matthew Lesh and Ben Saul oppose the emerging trend. University students have been given the right to not be confronted, challenged, offended or made uncomfortable. Clinical psychologist, bestselling author and former professor of Harvard Jordan Peterson encapsulated it nicely, stating “In order to think properly you must risk being offensive.”

The United States speech climate appears to be unsettled. Among the world’s standards, the US is a shining example for freedom of expression. We solidify our democracy in the first amendment.


Cornell Law School explains that “[it] guarantees freedom of expression by prohibiting congress from restricting the press or the rights of individuals to speak freely.”


However, there are issues. A research paper from Yetzer (Northwestern University), Pyszczynski (University of Colorado) and Matt Motyl (University of Illinois, Chicago) concluded that increased political monogamy has resulted in the loss of the liberal republicans and conservative democrats. They say that it may be a symptom of ideological possession impeding respect for opposing viewpoints.


Similar to Australia, the greatest challenges for free speech come from within the universities. Social psychologist and highly regarded researcher Jonathon Haidt has published more than 100 peer reviewed papers. In his book “The Coddling of the American Mind,” he reviews how good intentions that are bad ideas are degrading the university speech climates. He remarks on group thought phenomena, which involves attacking and de-platforming opposing viewpoints. It is used to promote one’s status within a group.


At his university (NYU), he comments on the serious attack on free speech that occurred when posters were seen in bathrooms outlining how a students can anonymously report offensive speech. He was brilliant when he said, “We all think that we have reason on our side. In interviews with both conservative and liberal students, they both claimed that their side governed by reason where the others is emotion.”


Free speech on university campuses thrive when emotions are kept in check. Facts, reason and academic research are valuable commodities. Perhaps we could defend free speech more avidly by rejecting shout down and shamming culture. We should know that in our personal deficiencies, no one holds enough wisdom to know exactly what is worthy of censorship. Instead, we should strive for the far greater good that lies in the uncomfortable feeling we get when our ideas are contested and held on trial.  

Edited by Jason Morrison, Jessica Galvin, Shelby Hanson