ALS Topic 22 - How free should free speech be?

Focus questions for Adelaide Lunchtime Seminar, 24 November 2018
Venue: · Adelaide
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Note: About Focus Questions: a) Please read them before you come to the meetup. Think about them so you have more than "instant opinions" to offer. b) Feel free to add more focus questions. c) THE FOCUS QUESTIONS ARE JUST A MENU TO CHOOSE FROM. From this menu we can discuss whatever seems interesting. d) Focus questions are not intended to push one viewpoint! You can adopt any position you wish. We actually like friendly disagreement - it can lead to deeper understanding.


Focus Questions

1. What does 'freedom of speech' actually mean?

2. Should freedom of speech (whatever it is) apply equally to everyone in all situations?

3. What role should laws and governments have in controlling what we are allowed to say? For example, what of these mixed messages in Europe? - The Economist (31 October 2018) "Voters in Ireland [just] chose to get rid of their constitution’s requirement for a legal ban on blasphemy. That popular decision in defence of freedom of expression contrasted with one taken a couple of days earlier by the judges of the European Court of Human Rights. They upheld the conviction of an Austrian woman who had been fined for saying that the Prophet Muhammad’s marriage to a six-year-old would today be regarded as child molestation." 

4. The path from private conversation to posting on social media, then to national media coverage can be almost instantaneous quite often now. This is very different to even a decade ago, when it was safe to 'let off steam' privately while showing restraint in public for the sake of harmony. The law has not found a solution to this new confusion of forums. How seriously has this situation undermined our personal freedom to speak freely?

5. One reason that people sometimes give for coming to live in a country like Australia is that they feel free here to say what they think without any serious risk of persecution or even violence. So really, how well does Australia compare with other societies on this question?

6. One big problem with documents of permission, like the American Constitution, or religious tracts (the Bible, the Q'ran etc) is that everyone, including authority figures, gives the written words meanings of social or political convenience. There have been wars and murders over this sort of thing. A word like 'freedom' in these documents can actually lead to oppression sometimes. So how useful is it to make formal legal rules about something like 'freedom of speech'?

7. Laws of slander, libel and defamation are intended to put some formal control on public statements which will cause a loss of reputation, employment, financial well-being and so on. How effective have such laws been? Can you think of examples where they have been used or misused? [note: in Australia, defamation is a private legal action. Thus it carries financial but not criminal risk. In some countries, such as South Korea, defamation is a criminal charge, brought by the Public Prosecutor. These legal differences can lead to very different outcomes].

8. We often hear now about 'the culture wars'. A large part of these so-called culture wars is often more to do with what people say than what they do (although words can lead to actions). Whether is it feminism or sexism or racism or ageism or religion or what political elites are doing ... and so on, the loudest arguments can be about what we are allowed to say, or what it is safe to say, in public. How much of this kind of conflict comes from rapid social change, how much from a real clash of cultures, how much from a sense of entitlement among people no longer facing a daily struggle for mere survival?

9. There are many, many countries where a public meetup like our Lunchtime Seminar, discussing controversial issues, would be forbidden. If allowed, it could pose a personal risk to those who took part. In the very least it would be infiltrated by government agents, and a record would be kept by those agents of who said what. So even in Australia, how many people do you think avoid discussion groups like this out of some private fear that it might cause them problems in the future?

10. Many, maybe most, people in employment self-censor what they say in the workplace, and even what they say outside of the workplace. How much of this censorship and secrecy is formally required, and how much of it is manipulation for personal advantage?

11. 'Security' is a much misused word. One of its main uses has been to stop people speaking in public about mistakes and malpractice in institutions. Norway has some of the strongest anti-secrecy rules anywhere. In Norway almost everything which happens in government administration is not allowed to be secret. How could we bring about such practice in Australia, and would it be a good idea?


Comments & Extra Reading

Thor May (2015) "Media Distraction and Social Control - Is the “white noise” of daily media distraction deliberate social control, or just modernity out of control? Everyone has only 24 hours in a day. In many communities worldwide the sheer struggle to survive occupies most waking hours. In some others, any “free thinking time”, especially for the young, is carefully manipulated by state directed activities, propaganda and censorship. A possible third model is that ruling elites and governments may prevent criticism by distracting the main population with sports, entertainment and endless trivial ‘news’." @ 

Thor May (2014) "When is censorship acceptable? Justify your argument -
When is censorship acceptable? Justify your argument - Forty years ago the biggest social debates were about the acceptability (or not) of censorship related to sexuality. Now the preoccupation might be more with political censorship. There are many kinds of censorship, including self-censorship. Who should be drawing these invisible lines in the sand, and applied to what?" @

Thor May (2001) "Student Activism : Truth and False Prophets - Alas, accumulated experience and a wider reading of history, has made me increasingly skeptical of the proposition that students are typically in the vanguard of anything but their own fashion statements. Sometimes they are on the side of the angels, but just as often they are dupes.
All too frequently in the real world, students argue for intolerance, persecution and reaction as "a means to an end". Their argument is always one of building a "better" world. They have yet to learn that the journey is usually more important than the destination. For all their intelligence, experience has not yet taught them the complexity of human motives, nor the persistence of human perversions. It is no accident that today's student leaders are usually tomorrow's oligarchs, factional politicians, and bureaucratic opportunists. The grimmest example of student deviance in all of history is surely Mao Zedong's Cultural Revolution ..." The Passionate Skeptic website @ 

The Economist (10 October 2018) "Be careful what you say - On Friday voters in Ireland chose to get rid of their constitution’s requirement for a legal ban on blasphemy. That popular decision in defence of freedom of expression contrasted with one taken a couple of days earlier by the judges of the European Court of Human Rights. They upheld the conviction of an Austrian woman who had been fined for saying that the Prophet Muhammad’s marriage to a six-year-old would today be regarded as child molestation". The Economist @ 

Faisal Al Yafai November 6, 2018 "Backlash over Syrian refugee’s story is about who has the right to speak - The moment it was announced that a young, white American woman was going to write a script for the true story of a young Syrian refugee, the backlash began..." Asia Times @ 

James Massola & Karuni Rompies (6 November 2018) "Social media giant Twitter suspended 1,210,357 accounts for promoting terrorism between August 2015 and the end of 2017". Brisbane Times @ 

David Devoss July (4, 2018) "US anger and divisiveness blamed on ‘Truth Decay’ -Governing is impossible when opinion and anecdote obscure fact and analysis. Punditry and opinion-based news have replaced hard-news journalism" - Asia Times @

Andrei Soldatov (Feb. 05 2018) "For more than five years, the Kremlin has tried to find a way to bring the internet in Russia under its control. Now under mounting pressure to bring online activity to heel ahead of (Russian) presidential elections in March, the authorities have developed a distinctive strategy that sets the country apart from China or Iran. The approach rests on two pillars. The first is the use of intimidation: The Kremlin has always been behind the curve in terms of its tech, but it has never lacked the resources for selective repression. Second, rather than targeting individual users, it is going after tech and internet companies. They are easiest to scare because they have the most to lose. The most scandalous legislation of 2017, banning VPN services which facilitate anonymous browsing, confirmed this strategy. The bill involves internet service providers in the enforcement system by requiring providers to check the state censor Roskomnadzor’s blacklist of uncooperative VPNs on a daily basis and take immediate action. As always, the results have been mixed. Although Roskomnadzor reported that some VPN services have complied with the law, the most popular VPN services have openly defied the legislation". Moscow Times @ 

Mariano Sigman (2018) "How can groups make good decisions?" TED talk @
_groups_make_good_decisions#t-503742  [Thor: Really interesting. The big challenge is to find a way for the wisdom of small groups to be translated into an online mechanism for the large scale governance of millions. Anonymous avatars would kill it stone dead - you wind up with extreme trolls. Then getting a balance of the population to participate is another tough one. Voluntary participants tend to be over-committed to some issue. We sure don't have real 'participatory democracy' the way things are working now].

Will Creeley (August 1, 2016) "Censored on Campus? FIRE Will Defend You - A pair of articles published online by The New York Times today—titled “Fighting for the First Amendment on America’s Campuses” and “Want a Copy of the Constitution? Now, That’s Controversial!”—reviews FIRE’s work defending free speech for students and faculty members nationwide..." The Fire Organization @ 

Nate Kornell (Mar 5, 2016) "When should a college uninvite a speaker?" Medium website @ 

Aaron R. Hanlon (April 24, 2017) "Why Colleges Have a Right to Reject Hateful Speakers Like Ann Coulter - Disinviting right-wing provocateurs isn't a suppression of free speech. It's a value judgment in keeping with higher education's mission." The New Republic @ 

Matthew Humphries (2 August 2018) "Report: Google Is Also Censoring a News App for China - Yesterday, we heard about Dragonfly for the first time. It's Google's censored search service for China, but it isn't the only thing Google is censoring. There's a news app in the works, too". PC Magazine @ 

Zach Reed (30 May 2018) "Oxford Union panel speaker Heather Marsh confirms debate was censored to protect CIA" World Socialist Website @ 

United States Government "Whistleblower Protection Programs" @ 

Gilbert King (September 26, 2012) "The Silence that Preceded China’s Great Leap into Famine - Mao Zedong encouraged critics of his government—and then betrayed them just when their advice might have prevented a calamity" Smithsonian @  [Comment by Thor: as a management stratagem, I have repeatedly seen 'let 100 flowers bloom' type of betrayal practiced in institutions, and the long term consequences are always dire]

Wikipedia (2018) "Freedom of expression is recognized as a human right under article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and recognized in international human rights law in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). Article 19 of the UDHR states that "everyone shall have the right to hold opinions without interference" and "everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of his choice". The version of Article 19 in the ICCPR later amends this by stating that the exercise of these rights carries "special duties and responsibilities" and may "therefore be subject to certain restrictions" when necessary "[f]or respect of the rights or reputation of others" or "[f]or the protection of national security or of public order (order public), or of public health or morals". Wikipedia @ 

Information warfare and the exploitation of 'free speech': Chris Zappone (13 October 2018) "'Regime change without a war': we need to get smarter about fake news" Brisbane Times @  . [comment by Thor: The business model of military-industrial-political complexes, and overwhelmingly the one centred on Washington, has heavily leaned for at least two generations on the propagation of fake news. Fake news underpins the public opinion that guarantees their budgets. So now the Russians, Big Pharma, and everyone else is offering competition in that space. They are hugely aided by the electronic tsunamis which sites like Twitter generate. Especially Twitter, since the largest part of every population is not functionally literate enough to take in more than a written sentence or two. Ask Donald Trump about that. Getting people motivated and analytic enough to navigate all this stuff may be the biggest challenge our civilizations face. Conventional 'education' systems do not cut it right now at this critical level, and it is hard to see how they can be made to.]

ian beutler => it ws all worked out ab. 3 thous. yrs ago, Thor. the only real freedom is total self-responsibility.. to put it bluntly. &most won't get it. as 4 free speech, i have a wife that treats me as the village idiot. she's a good barometer for me. & it is as Socrates said...

=> Thor May - Agreed, but now computer (ro)bots want free speech too, and they've got us outnumbered..

Thor May => Does 'free speech' include the right to spread free propaganda? A large part of America's soft power outside of the United States has come from Hollywood myth-making. The reality of daily life for ordinary working Americans has been much more grim. The power of the Hollywood mythical world has been its dream appeal for those who don't have the dream. The Chinese government has tried to hitch its star to this American vehicle: "How China controls Hollywood scripts" by Amy Qin and Audrey Carlsen (19 November 2018), Brisbane Times @  [comment by Thor: If someone offers you a bargain that is too good to be true, then you can guess strongly that he's a liar. If someone presents an image of themselves to the world that is too good to be true, then you can guess strongly that he's a liar. If a country presents an image of itself to the world that is too good to be true, then you can guess strongly that it's a lie. So what is 'too good to be true'? That depends upon your life experience. The life experience of Trump supporters seems to have been that Obama was too good to be true, and that Trump is reassuringly imperfect just like themselves. My life experience has been that the angelic image of Xi Jinping presented to the world by Chinese media. and the fairy tale story of China presented to the world by Chinese media are both too good to be true. Therefore I am moved to judge these media manipulators as liars and the image as rather stupid, ineffective propaganda. That's a pity for China's sake. China is by no means alone in making that kind of mistake. Hollywood lives on this stuff.]

=> ian beutler - metaphysical probl with "free" is it means we get what we deserve... including ... B.S... which is also "free" ... cf. "karma"

=> Madhu - Yep - Take what you what and pay for it (in this context, say what you want). Every idea put out in the world has had detractors and supporters. The individual numbers of detractors and supporters are not an indication of the idea being right/fair. It just 'is' and changes as the society changes through the ages, and not always for the better.

=> Thor May - What you or I say is unlikely to change the world much, for better or for worse. Our free speech comes cheap. When you are in a position to manipulate what 2 billion people see & hear, like Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg, then your own tendencies can be very, very critical to setting a neutral environment (or not) where others can promote their views. This article suggests that Zuckerberg has been anything but neutral, and is out of his depth, which is a risk for everyone: Margaret Sullivan (20 November 2018) "Mark Zuckerberg should - at least - step down as Facebook chairman" Brisbane Times @ 

=> Madhu - The article makes interesting reading. Free speech is always acceptable if you like or at least can tolerate what others say and it doesn't cause you any harm. That I think is a part of the discussion - Do or should effects count towards freeness of 'free' speech? Another point in the article's context is that Zuckerberg is an empire builder, and a large part of empire building is propaganda and image. I like this analysis of knowledge production (somewhat off topic) 

=> Thor May - A pity we can only work from the abstract on that link Madhu. But yes, Alexander the Great didn't do bad for someone who was dead by about 32. However, pragmatically there is a qualitative change which comes from a modern quantitative change. I've read that in pre-modern China the literacy level was only about 2%. That tiny minority "made" the history and mythology to be passed on by word of mouth as "knowledge". Now over a million books are published annually, and 24/7 billions of people shape and are shaped by the media torrent. That might pose a somewhat different free speech problem than the traditional one.

=> Madhu - Hi Thor, Sorry. The download link on top right of the document gives full access to the document. If interested, this is the document link:  It is a somewhat an effort - about 50 pages long - but is well researched (to me - a complete non-expert in the area) and well written. I do agree with minority historians who essentially wrote history, acting as 'true eyewitnesses' and official chroniclers - Monks in the west, priests in the east. Makes one think how old is the true PR business.


Thor's own websites:

1. articles at ;

2. legacy site: .


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