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Have we drawn a chalk line around freedom of speech?

ByRick Daley
An image made from paper showing two heads with red tape across their mouths

Words fuel ideas, and for some, ideas are dangerous. Today however, freedom of speech (FoS) has become this rather murky area that some unhinged politicians, religious fundamentalists, shock jocks, keyboard warriors and any number of trolls have railroaded for their own agenda. Unfortunately, the whole notion of FoS is now tainted with hate speech from across the political spectrum and it’s in dire need of a complete reassessment.

As some of you may know, 1995 was a pivotal year for the AFL. Primarily because the game of football ushered in Rule 30, its anti-vilification rule, now known as the Peek Rule. Despite the game telling itself it was ‘elite’ and ‘professional’ it was okay for a long time to call an opposition player anything you wanted. You could make reference to their imagined sexual history or make sexual and violent suggestions regarding their wife, mother, or children. Nothing was off limits. 

However, in saying this, I don’t think the players back in the ’70s, ’80s or ’90s thought they were engaging their rights but were merely employing hyper-masculine chirp to break an opponent down, which occurred in most team sports. And as spectators, we were equally to blame for paying a few bucks to get through the turn-styles and egg them on, while we also spewed vitriol all over the opposition players and supporters too.

Today we see how the issue of FoS works within football and what the consequences are if you’re not mindful of this or of the audience you’re speaking to. Last year we saw ex-Crows captain, Taylor Walker, banned for six games and fined $AUD20,000 because in the quarter time huddle at a second-tier game in Adelaide, he was completely comfortable that his racist directive would be met with approval. But Walker was reported by one of his own – a Crows staff member. 

The second more recent example was North Melbourne head coach David Noble whose half-time speech to the players was so incendiary, some have sought counselling and others are apparently looking to be traded. I’m sure this never happened in Ron Barrassi or Denis Pagan’s time at Arden Street. 

But to understand this within its temporal context requires attention because all manner of things that evolve, including language and our use of it, is no different. Yeah, some of us pine for the ‘good ole days’ when things were simpler, and you could say whatever came into your head. There is a certain neo-Shakesperian quality to this, but it comes with a warning that if you want to go down this path be prepared for some close and personal heckling.

What’s required here is a degree of perception, empathy, and tolerance because we all have a responsibility – both civic and personal – to speak up when something’s not right, even if we’d prefer not to. That responsibility stems from living in a democratic society whereby your rights and requirements should not come at the expense of someone else’s, and vice versa. It’s part of our social contract with society. Sadly, the whole ‘some animals are more equal than others’ thing predisposes many to the competitive impulses of life, but my freedom to say what I want should not be at the emotional expense of others, and nor should the cancellers be the arbitrators of what gets jettisoned and what stays. 

But is FoS dead? Have hate speech and ambiguity destroyed our fundamental right to defend our political stance? The answer is simple – not yet. However, if you want to speak your mind, you just need to think about what you say first. And if you fuck up, apologise, and try not to make the same mistake again. This lends itself to another platitude – actions speak louder than words. But do they? It depends on what actions and what words are said, in what combination and in what context. If you think one works harder than the other, then you’ve missed the point. Thoughtful action is the only action that is defensible, and if you’re incapable of that – then stay quiet, wait for the wind to rise, and piss into that. 



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