In Defence of Free Speech

In Defence of Free Speech (2012) by Chris Berg charts freedom of speech historically and then looks at Free Speech in Australia. The book looks at freedom of speech in the ancient western world, in the Christian world and through the birth of Liberalism and the Enlightenment. Finally free speech is examined in the modern western, Anglo-Saxon and Australian context.

The best parts of the book are those that deal with how Free Speech historically.  The different ways that free speech was looked at in Ancient Greece and Ancient Rome and the way that different things were censored by the church and later secular authorities give valuable background to the way that freedom of speech is today handled.

The rise of modern freedom of speech in the Dutch Republic and the role of Spinoza is emphasized. Spinoza’s grounding of free speech in both rights and the pragmatic harm caused by limiting free speech still applies and works today. Going on from the Dutch Republic’s relative freedom of expression Berg looks at the defense of free speech provided by Milton that he regards as deeply problematic due to the sizable list of qualifications that Milton proposed on atheist, Catholic and other thought. Free speech in the US and the ‘market of ideas’ defence offered by John Wendell Holmes is criticized by Berg. The abuses of free speech in the name of security are also outlines.

The chapter on Australia is somewhat oddly bolted on to the book. The jump from the general historical discussion to present day Australia is a little jarring. Recently Andrew Bolt has been punished for writing about how some people use their ethnicity to further their career. Bolt was punished because he may have caused offence which was remarkably unwise. Across the Australian political spectrum, but mainly from the right, the defence of Bolt was strenuous. The potentially more serious and ominous actions by the current, unpopular government to threaten the press are also described.

The book is well worth reading for a better understanding of why free speech matters and how it has evolved in Europe throughout the ages.

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