New research reveals who really benefits from free speech

Jonathan Ayling, CE of our sister union in New Zealand, writes about research to be released in August 2023 which refutes the allegation that free speech advocates are defending a right which embeds existing structural privilege. Not so.

OPINION: Free speech advocates often face the accusation that they are defending a right which embeds existing structural privilege. Many claim that free speech protects the wealthy and powerful from the consequences of language and beliefs that oppress others. For this reason, they argue, legal limitations are needed on free speech to defend the powerless.

Yet this is demonstrably false.

Research which will be published in the August issue of the Journal of Economic Behaviour and Organization by academics from Victoria University and Motu Economic and Public Policy Research demonstrates a fact long claimed at the Free Speech Union: free speech defends first the vulnerable and marginalised.

The study, which looked at population datasets from around the world and drew from the World Values Survey, found that while individuals with greater resources may place greater stated priority on freedom of speech, it is in fact individuals with fewer resources who consistently receive the greatest benefits from free speech.

We are often told that the poor and otherwise marginalised are in need of state protection from certain speech. Indeed, the Government’s recent attempt to extend hate speech laws, and the current proposals to regulate social media, often stem from these claims.

A free speech protest at Massey University in 2018 after former politician Don Brash was banned from speaking on campus by the university.

Yet, the authors of the research write that: “Our results indicate that, within countries, individuals with lower income and lower education levels benefit most from free speech. These results support the hypothesis that free speech has an empowerment effect for those with fewer resources in society.”

If we stop and consider the claim made by the researchers for a minute, it makes sense. If we claim that individuals are allowed to speak freely, without fear of physical, economic or political consequence, then those who have the most to lose from physical, economic or political consequences, ie those with the least power to resist these consequences, stand to benefit first.

Why should the rich, powerful and privileged care about a basic societal norm that enables them to speak without consequence? They are rich, powerful and privileged. They are able to wear the consequences. Clearly, it is the poor, powerless and oppressed for whom the ability to speak is most significant.

Despite the suspicion (or outright antagonism) that is growing against the basic liberty to speak freely, even expressing things that others find offensive or hurtful, free speech still operates as a great defender of the vulnerable. As Jonathan Rauch, the gay American author who rose to prominence in the fight for marriage equality, claimed, “Free speech isn’t a minority’s best friend; it is their only friend’’.

Free speech is a perennially radical idea. Admittedly, the notion that our worst enemy should be given the opportunity to speak is counter-intuitive. Even today, approximately 8% of the world’s population live in countries with full freedom of speech whereas over two-thirds (67%) live in countries with no respect for freedom of speech. It is a rare society which allows the poor, uneducated and uncouth to speak as fearlessly as the wealthy, educated and refined.

By and large, New Zealand has been one of those societies and the marginalised have benefited from this freedom. But we would be foolish to think that this is an unavoidable cultural value for Kiwis. Like all freedoms, it is one that must be protected and maintained.

And it is the poor and powerless who will suffer most if we fail. Good intentions may lead us to silence nasty voices that afflict the vulnerable, but in doing so we set a precedent that speech is not free – which means only those who can afford to pay may possess it.

Rather than enabling structural oppression, free speech has, time and time again, been the primary weapon used by the marginalised and disadvantaged to undermine the rich, powerful, and privileged. For this reason, creating a culture in the name of the marginalised that is suspicious of free speech and which chips away at its legal standing does a great disservice to the very communities we may be seeking to help.

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© Free Speech Union SA