The free speech debate has flared up yet again, in two very different ways.

Adelaide Writers’ Week, currently under way, has been engulfed in controversy over the participation of two Palestinian writers: Susan Abulhawa, the author of grossly offensive tweets about Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, and Mohammed El-Kurd, who criticises Israel in language viewed by many as antisemitic.

There have been calls for Adelaide Writers’ Week director Louise Adler to be removed.Credit:Eddie Jim

Meanwhile, in Sydney, two “socialist activist” students – who were part of a mob that last year broke up a meeting at the University of Sydney to hear former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull – were suspended for behaviour in breach of the university’s code of conduct.

Louise Adler, the former head of Melbourne University Publishing and director of Writers’ Week, has defended the participation of the Palestinian activists on freedom of speech grounds. Morry Schwartz, another publisher who funds a stable of relentlessly left-wing periodicals, called for her resignation. So far, Adler has stood her ground. She is right to do so.

Adler does not condone the language or endorse the opinions of the Palestinian writers. With Australia strongly supporting Ukraine against the Russian invasion, the organisers showed particularly poor judgment in inviting someone who abuses Zelensky. Nevertheless, invited they were; once they are on the bill, to remove them could only be seen as an act of censorship.

There is something more than a little unsettling about banning writers from a writers’ festival – and particularly alarming when the calls are led by a publisher. But, of course, Schwartz is one of Australia’s greatest champions of intellectual conformism: you will search in vain for diversity of opinion in his publications, unless they are gradations of difference between the left and the far left.

Deaglan Godwin and Maddie Clark have been suspended from Sydney University.Credit:Edwina Pickles

Freedom of speech used to be an article of faith for progressives. When it was denied, none were so emphatic in its defence. Within recent memory, those on the left made common cause with liberals to demand people’s right to read, see, hear and say whatever they wanted. It was conservatives who were in favour of censorship.

But in one of the strangest inversions in our lifetimes, it is now progressives who are the free speech sceptics. Anything that offends them is glibly labelled “hate speech”. Freedom of speech has ceased to be a progressive cause; it has become a conservative totem.

Official censorship is no longer the problem. As long ago as 1859, John Stuart Mill warned that the greatest threat to freedom of speech came not from the power of government to censor, but the power of public opinion to coerce. Unorthodox, provocative or unpopular views would be driven out. In his essay On Liberty, Mill made the case against the coercive power of orthodoxy: “If all mankind minus one were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind.”

He understood, as did Voltaire before him, that freedom of speech only means anything if it is freedom for all.

Mill’s fear has become today’s reality. Enforcers of political orthodoxy police social media with the righteous ferocity of modern-day Savonarolas. They are the book-burners of the digital age. Those whose views are deemed to be impermissible are denounced, harassed and cancelled. At universities, people are shouted down and “no-platformed”, as supine authorities watch.

Which brings us to what happened at Sydney University on September 1, last year.

Turnbull, one of the Law School’s most distinguished alumni, had been invited to speak to the Law Students’ Society. The gathering of about 100 students was interrupted by a dozen or so protesters, led by officials of the Student Representative Council. Two used megaphones. As Turnbull told a subsequent investigation, the interlopers were menacing and intimidatory. They approached so close to him that he said he felt threatened. He and the audience were subjected to incessant, loudly amplified chants and abuse, designed to shout down Turnbull and to shut down the meeting. Which is what happened.

Last week, The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age published a revealing account by the two suspended students.

They denied they were trying to shut the meeting down. They claimed, given the “power imbalance” between themselves and Turnbull, that they were merely “putting forward an alternative perspective.”

Leave aside the fact that this is comically dishonest – you don’t march into a meeting with two bullhorns to put an alternative perspective. What is truly remarkable is that they tried to justify their conduct as exercising their right to free speech.

Nobody could mistake intimidation and amplified abuse as an exercise in freedom of speech. And how is it possible to claim that your right to free speech consists of denying the same right to another?

Turnbull – a man who chooses his words carefully – described the behaviour to which he and his audience were subjected as fascist. He is not the first person to use the “f-word” to describe the intolerance of much of the modern left – in particular, the campus left. The same observation was recently made by that pin-up of progressive opinion Stephen Fry, who lamented “the left has become so fascist lately”.

No doubt the protesters who broke up Turnbull’s meeting regard themselves as progressives. They absurdly invoke the right to free speech to justify intimidation. But no amount of rationalisation about “power imbalances”, or hypocritical attempts to camouflage yourself with liberal principles you plainly despise, will hide the fact that if you decide to behave like a fascist, you are one.

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Why freedom of speech is no longer a progressive cause

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05.03.2023

The free speech debate has flared up yet again, in two very different ways.

Adelaide Writers’ Week, currently under way, has been engulfed in controversy over the participation of two Palestinian writers: Susan Abulhawa, the author of grossly offensive tweets about Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, and Mohammed El-Kurd, who criticises Israel in language viewed by many as antisemitic.

There have been calls for Adelaide Writers’ Week director Louise Adler to be removed.Credit:Eddie Jim

Meanwhile, in Sydney, two “socialist activist” students – who were part of a mob that last year broke up a meeting at the University of Sydney to hear former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull – were suspended for behaviour in breach of the university’s code of conduct.

Louise Adler, the former head of Melbourne University Publishing and director of Writers’ Week, has defended the participation of the Palestinian activists on freedom of speech grounds. Morry Schwartz, another publisher who funds a stable of relentlessly left-wing periodicals, called for her resignation. So far, Adler has stood her ground. She is right to do so.

Adler does not condone the language or endorse the opinions of the Palestinian writers. With Australia strongly supporting Ukraine against the Russian invasion, the organisers showed particularly poor judgment in inviting someone who abuses Zelensky. Nevertheless, invited they were; once they are on the bill, to remove them could only be seen as an act of censorship.

There is........

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