Almost all the instances the right raise as attacks on freedom of speech are not free speech issues at all. The right cynically crow about their free speech persecution in the pages of national dailies, from the screens of nightly news programs and the lecterns of university lecture theatres.
But the left’s response to the right’s hypocrisy shouldn’t be the adoption of a relative position to freedom of speech. We need to rescue it from the right, which means fighting for the expansion of the right to free speech, not restriction.
Inevitably, calling for the restriction of freedom of speech means calling on the state or some other stand-in authority (such as university administrations) to restrict that right on our behalf, since only they have the power to effect it. And as is evident with the recent passing of various anti-protest measures at state and federal levels – including the arming of Victoria Police with so-called less-than-lethal weapons explicitly for the purpose of ‘crowd control’ – it’s never too long before the authorities turn their repression towards the left.
As a recent US study showed, the real targets of increasing censoriousness on campus has been progressives. But such is the topsy-turvy period we live in where the right have positioned themselves as the enemies of censorship and the champions of free speech. With the growth of the far right internationally, coupled with an increasingly authoritarian state, the left needs to recapture its democratic spirit – because if our project for social transformation is to be an emancipatory one, then the fight to retain and expand democratic participation is essential.