Freedom of speech

By Legal Eagle

When does something become so offensive that it should be banned? It’s a thorny question. As readers of this blog will know, I have expressed discomfort with the portrayal of women in music videos and with the “turkey-slapping” incident in Big Brother. My knee-jerk reaction to the Big Brother incident was that the show should be taken off the air, but later, after more thought on the issue, I changed my mind. Although I might be personally uncomfortable with these particular expressions of free speech, I think that it is more important to be able to air such expressions in a Western democratic society. After all, I have the freedom to criticise these expressions if I want to (or to turn my television off).

Thus I read today’s opinion in The Australian about freedom of speech with interest. Fitzgerald argues that:

[People] tend to believe in free speech for themselves but not for other people who might offend their deeply held beliefs, values and prejudices, be they religious or secular.

He then raises the issue of freedom of speech and the introduction of “anti-pornography” laws in Indonesia.

Allowing free speech means having to put up with expressions of that right which may be morally offensive or repulsive in the extreme. For example, a group of Dutch pedophiles have set up a political party which seeks to lower the age of sexual consent to 12. The Hague District Court refused to ban the party. Judge Hofhuis said in his ruling:

“Freedom of expression, freedom … of association, including the freedom to set up a political party, can be seen as the basis for a democratic society. These freedoms give citizens the opportunity to, for example, use a political party to appeal for change to the constitution, law, or policy.”

While I personally find the existence of such a political party utterly repugnant, unfortunately, I agree with the Court it is an necessary incident of the right to freedom of speech. I am glad to say that the party is unlikely to get enough candidates or to get elected in any case: the electorate is likely to exercise its corresponding prerogative to reject and criticise such views.

I already knew about the proposed “anti-pornography” laws in Indonesia after I watched a Foreign Correspondent program on the issue. Although the laws are called “anti-pornography” laws, they do not just outlaw pornography, but also “suggestive” songs and dancing, couples kissing each other on the lips in public and the wearing of “suggestive” clothing (eg, skirts exposing the knees). The laws are suggested after intense lobbying by groups such as the Islamic Defenders’ Front. Some Muslim Indonesians see these laws as importing Arabic notions of Islam into a society which has never previously had these values (on an anecdotal level, I have spoken to Malays who agree that such notions were never previously present in South East Asian Islam). It is questionable as to how appropriate these laws are for an ethnically diverse society. For example, some indigenous Papuan women are bare-breasted in public and some indigenous Papuan men wear only penis gourds. The predominately Hindu Balinese community is against the proposed laws, but also because they fear it will lead to a further downturn for tourism in Bali.

Freedom of speech means that Abu Bakar Bashir has a right to say that the naked female body is a worse evil than the Bali bombings, but it doesn’t mean he has the right to force that view on other people. Freedom of speech also means that I have a corresponding right to say that I think such a view is appalling, and that I think Indonesian women have a right to chose what they want to do with their own bodies (whether to walk around in a bikini all day or to wear a burqa).

Certainly, as a feminist, I do not support the passing of the “anti-pornography” laws in Indonesia. Such laws limit the freedom of women to participate in the same way as men in society, and demonise the female body as a source of evil temptation. The thought of such laws being enacted is scary. Freedom of speech may mean that we have to put up with people expressing views or showing images which we find unpleasant, immoral or repulsive, but this seems a small price to pay in comparison with the repressive alternative.


  1. pornstudent
    Posted September 26, 2006 at 10:04 am | Permalink

    I’ve been following the Indonesia porn law story. Haven’t heard anything new about it since May. The Anti-Pornography and Pornographic Acts Bill was first drafted in 1998. The bill was revived in 2005. Yoyoh Yusroh, the deputy chairwoman of the House special committee deliberating the bill, expected the draft to be passed into law this past June. I suppose it will make all the news outlets when/if it does.

  2. Legal Eagle
    Posted September 26, 2006 at 10:13 am | Permalink

    Yeah, I checked and as far as I can tell, the legislation still hasn’t been passed yet.

  3. ky
    Posted September 26, 2006 at 12:13 pm | Permalink

    But is there some point at which there has to be a limit? Surely the “harm principle” applies – but the difficulty is assessing the notion of “harm”…

  4. Legal Eagle
    Posted September 26, 2006 at 12:24 pm | Permalink

    Totally. The difficulty is, as you say, assessing the harm. What about violent porn films or the like? Personally, I draw the line well and truly at something like that. This is because it involves physical harm to others.

    Another example: my gut instinct would be to ban anti-Semitic literature because of its harmful impact on a particular sector of society who have suffered persecution and genocide in the past, partially because of writings and expressions of speech which validated those actions. But then my logical mind thinks “Isn’t it better to let these things be said, and to argue back that what has been said isn’t true or should not be said?”

    As I say, it’s a thorny question with no easy answers. I guess what I am saying is that we shouldn’t just ban everything that we personally find offensive.

Post a Comment

Your email is never published nor shared. Required fields are marked *