A postscript on Troy Newman and the freedom to express extreme ideas

Note: I am cross-posting this from my personal blog, Metamagician and the Hellfire Club. The Cogito post referred to is the one that I republished here a couple of days ago.

I have a post over at Cogito about the debacle with extreme anti-abortion campaigner Troy Newman, who has been excluded from visiting Australia. This is a quick postscript.

At the time I wrote the post, Newman had managed to get here despite not having a valid visa, but he has since failed in an attempt to stay in Australia by way of an urgent hearing in the High Court. I wasn’t expecting the court to be sympathetic to him once he took the law into his own hands and managed to circumvent the system to fly here. But up to that point, he had evidently complied with all requirements. His original visa was evidently legally obtained, and there was no obvious reason to find any fault with the process up to then.

The High Court’s decision doesn’t yet seem to have been published anywhere online, so it’s difficult at this stage to be sure of Justice Nettle’s exact reasoning. Going on media reports, however, the main point appears to have been that Newman had not come to the court with “clean hands”, in that he had flouted the law in deliberately flying and arriving without a visa. That seems fair enough – I’m not critical of the court for deciding the case on that basis.

It also seems that he has been given a further opportunity to appeal (from the US) against the decision to revoke his visa. If he succeeds, he’ll be able to come here in the future. But his actions over the last few days may be seen as weakening whatever case he originally had.

In my view – which the court also seems to have stated – he did originally have an arguable case to have his visa reinstated. I.e. he had a case, leaving aside his behaviour in coming to Australia unlawfully. But that may now be moot.

This situation is troubling for me in the sense that Newman’s views are, as far as I’m concerned, anathema. He is exactly the kind of extreme, theocratic moralist that I can’t stand and have spent much of my life opposing. But it does not follow that he should be prevented from speaking in Australia merely because he might put extreme political views such as that abortion should be a capital crime. Preposterous as that view may be, it is legal to express it.

It’s troubling, then, because I find myself, if I am intellectually honest, forced to defend the rights of someone whose views I detest. But that is what comes with being a liberal in the tradition of John Stuart Mill. It will happen from time to time, and we must accept it.

Leaving aside his actual views on prohibiting abortion, there is other dirt on Newman in that he made highly provocative statements in 2003 in protesting against the execution of convicted murderer Paul Jennings Hill. I’m a bit more sympathetic to keeping him out for those statements, which countenanced the murder of abortion providers. Still, nothing that is publicly known seems to suggest that Newman was going to promote violence on his visit to Australia. If there’s something that has not been revealed – e.g. some evidence that he actually was intending to incite or promote violence – it needs to be explained properly to the public to put the matter at rest.

Meanwhile, much of the reasoning being offered in the mainstream and social media for his exclusion is simply along the lines that he was planning to express extreme views about what the law should be in relation to abortion.

Well, however much I hate those views, it is, once again, legal to express them in Australia, and it should be. Indeed, it is political speech: exactly the sort of speech that most merits protection, as the High Court has ruled in the past. The claim that such views should not be permitted public expression is nakedly authoritarian, and it’s a disappointing, disturbing trend that so many people on the Left – traditionally the party of individual liberty and free speech – now seem to believe that we should be using the state’s coercive power to suppress unwanted political views.

Again, if the government has enough dirt on Newman and his plans to put an acceptable case for cancelling his visa and keeping him out, so be it. Let the public know the situation. But my liberal principles require me to insist that he not be prevented from coming here to speak merely, or even primarily, because he holds extreme political opinions on what should be the law relating to abortion.

What has become shockingly clear to me – more than ever in the last few days – is how few people on the Left really support basic liberal principles. I’m appalled by this. I have to say, yet again: Freedom of speech is not just freedom for people to express ideas that we agree with or consider innocuous. If we’re going to have a society in which freedom of speech is generally accepted, it will include freedom to express views that are nasty, ugly, and wrong.

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  1. I’m on the left and have been on it all my life, but I’m not at all sure that the left, as I know it, has always defended free speech as the original post claims.

    The left defended or apologized for the Soviet Union, Fidel’s Cuba and continues to defend Venezuela, which, while not technically a dictatorship, certainly does not follow Mill’s principles on free speech.

    I come from Chile and one of the most common leftwing criticisms of Salvador Allende’s democratic socialist government, overthrown by a rightwing coup in 1973, is that Allende did not crack down on rightwing critics of his government. I don’t agree with those criticisms, but that’s how most of the left reasons.

    The left, like the right and the center, favors free speech when it’s in their interests and is against it when it threatens their interests.

    Finally, there is a libertarian current on the left which does defend free speech. Let me quote Rosa Luxemberg: “freedom of speech is meaningless unless it means the freedom of the person who thinks differently”.

    I identify with that libertarian current, but I am a minority on the left and by “left”, I mean the socialist as well as the more moderate social democratic left.

  2. We, on the left, have dirty hands too, when it comes to free speech. The idea of allowing groups to demand that speakers be barred from college campuses on the grounds that their thought and speech offends comes from the left.

    Teachers are disciplined for offending: women, Muslims, the right,abortion, creationists, God, deniers of the holocaust, evolution, the disabled, Blacks, Arabs, Popery, the military, and many others whom the reader can add.

    Comedians no longer come to college campuses because of silly protest groups. It was left leaning whites who demanded that Huckleberry Finn be removed from reading lists because of the word “Nigger.” Guns often are targets of speech bans whether the speaker is for them or against them.

    We have come to beieve that offensive words and speech should be prohibited.

    We need free trade of ideas if we are to have a free country.

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