Freedom of Speech. Over-rated?

Last week, after a busy day in the office I thought I’d better get myself off to a Wheeler Centre gig. It’d been a little while since I’d been to one, and I had tickets, after all.

I wandered up to one of my favourite venues, the Melbourne Town Hall, to attend the latest in the Intelligence Squared Debates (presented by the St James Ethics Centre and the Wheeler Centre.) I expected that the evening would be intelligent, philosophical and perhaps even humorous, and my expectations were most certainly meet. I cast my vote at the door, and took my seat ready to hear six great minds argue for and against the proposition, that “freedom of speech is over-rated.”

It had been a long time since I’d been to a properly run, serious debate. To be truthful, the last time was probably high school, and so I’d forgotten how perplexing they can be. Although I felt pretty certain of which side of the argument I agreed with, I found myself flipping, second guessing and questioning my commitment as each new speaker took to the podium.

The line-up was impressive; Marcia Langton, Michael Gawenda and Catherine Deveny arguing for the proposition and Julian Burnside, Gretel Killeen and Arnold Zable speaking for the opposing side. Without exception, the speakers offered up compelling and intelligent arguments, although I’ll admit that from the outset the negative come across incredibly strongly.

Marcia Langton raised extremely valid and convincing points, examples of the harm that can be brought about by ‘too much’ free speech. Arnold Zable in turn highlighted the frightening damage that can be done through ‘too little’.

Catherine Deveny, in true irreverent style, brought to bear an argument that not only was freedom of speech over-rated, but also that it was practically imaginary. In her opinion; “…some of the people could say some of the things, some of the time.” The rest of us, if not in this select group, suffered greatly if we dared to speak our mind. Gretel Killeen did not entirely disagree with this argument, although she did go on to demonstrated that even if freedom of speech did not exist, that this didn’t mean that it wasn’t incredibly important. In her opinion, it was in fact greatly under-rated, and was a freedom well worth fighting to obtain and maintain.

The final speakers, Michael Gawenda and Julian Burnside QC were both highly intelligent and incredibly entertaining. Michael Gawenda focused on the importance of facts, on the need for speech (free or otherwise), opinions or media to be based on factual realities. To use freedom of speech to excuse, or indeed validate lies or fallacies was a great crime indeed. Again, the speaker for the negative Julian Burnside QC agreed with this, and went on to say that freedom of speech, as it stands today does not, and should not, include the freedom to tell lies, or to mislead.

The fight was won with Burnside. He’s a sly one, and he turned the debate on its head at this point. He complimented the affirmative team, and highlighted how their careers, their life’s works were in fact great testaments to the importance of freedom of speech and that they had in fact worked to ensure that others could be assured of a certain, and potentially increasing, level of freedom to express their views, beliefs and opinions.

After questions, comments and final arguments from both teams, a debate winner was declared. The evening went to the negative team, freedom of speech was NOT over-rated. The victory was convincing.

This was a fascinating evening, and I’m looking forward to the next debate, on an equally contentious issue “Foreign Aid is a Waste of Money.”

Next up though, it’s looking like Ev and I will be enjoying an evening out together to hear from the very funny Jeff Kinney, author of the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series. We can’t wait! Tickets are available if you’d like to join in the fun…

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