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Free speech and the media are too often in a marriage of convenience

Denis Muller writes in The Conversation (12.9.16) about the highly contested issue of freedom of speech, arguing that the efforts of some politicians and sections of the media to champion free speech are actually curtailing it for certain members of our society.

‘The closely related concepts of free speech and a free media have deep roots in our political culture. They can be traced back more than 350 years to the period of struggle in England against the licensing of the press. John Milton, in his 1644 address to parliament, Areopagitica, argued passionately for a free press and the abolition of licensing. But this was not finally attained until the enactment of the Statute of Anne in 1710.

‘Press licensing has left a deep imprint on our political DNA. This imprint can be seen most vividly in the First Amendment to the US Bill of Rights, which asserts that Congress shall make no law for the abridgement of the press. While Australia has no such sweeping protection, the idea of licensing newspapers has never gained any sustained political traction here.

‘The reason is that a free press – now including all news media – is essential to the functioning of a capitalist democracy. Without it, citizens have no means of exercising the powers of what John Locke called the sovereign people. They would be robbed of the information necessary to making political and economic decisions, and of knowing what others in society, outside their immediate circle, were doing.

‘A free press also gives practical effect to the individual right of free speech. It enables one person’s voice to be heard by many and, with the arrival of digital technology, for the many to speak with the many.

‘For all its fundamental importance, however, free speech is not treated by our society as an absolute value. It is constrained on occasion when it collides with other values. These include the value of justice and the value that says we should not cause unjustifiable harm. Consequently we have laws concerning national security, defamation and contempt of court – to name the most obvious – all of which constrain free speech.

‘However, there are serious questions to be asked in contemporary Australia about the reach of these constraints.’

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