I fear yet this iron yoke of outward conformity hath left a slavish print upon our necks. John Milton (1644).

The Australian state of Tasmania sits yet again within the crosshairs of a social battle, this time over free speech. And I have stumbled, within the fray, upon powerful help in a very old pamphlet—Areopagitica—penned some four centuries ago by the immortal John Milton.

So, what is happening in our Apple Isle?

Since 1998, the State’s Anti-Discrimination Act has made it an offence to discriminate on the grounds of a wide range of attributes:

Race; age; sexual orientation; lawful sexual activity; gender; gender identity; intersex; marital status; relationship status; pregnancy; breastfeeding; parental status; family responsibilities; disability; industrial activity; political belief or affiliation; political activity; religious belief or affiliation; religious activity; irrelevant criminal record; irrelevant medical record; association with a person who has, or is believed to have, any of these attributes.

And Section 17(1) of the Act makes it an offence to,

engage in any conduct which offends, humiliates, intimidates, insults or ridicules another person on the basis of an attribute referred to [above], in circumstances in which a reasonable person, having regard to all the circumstances, would have anticipated that the other person would be offended, humiliated, intimidated, insulted or ridiculed.”

In 2015, a complaint was brought by transgender activist Martine Delaney against Roman Catholic Archbishop Julian Porteous for distributing the booklet Don’t Mess with Marriage, produced by the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference. The Anti-Discrimination Commissioner accepted the complaint, and the legal wheels began to turn. Delaney dropped the complaint however just before to the 2016 federal election, in which he was running as a candidate. Perhaps he saw that it was doing his cause more harm than good.

Soon after, the Tasmanian Attorney-General proposed an amendment to the Act, to exclude from Section 17(1) conduct motivated by “religious purposes.”

Many welcome this amendment, especially in view of the public debate over marriage.

As a Christian leader, however, I have firmly opposed these exemptions, in both an opinion piece in a Hobart newspaper, and in a submission to the Attorney General.

I hold instead that the whole of Section 17(1) is rotten, and should be repealed not amended. Why? Because it attacks the fundamental human right to free speech.

Oxford don Richard Dawkins, in his God Delusions, described God as a “petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.” 

This is the same God who was born on earth of the virgin Mary, the God whose name is Jesus. As a Christian, it cuts deep to hear the person you love abused like this. And of course it’s an attack on our character: “You worship a God like that?”

But I’m glad Dawkins can speak freely. Because free speech is important. Free speech is how goodness and truth comes to be discovered and tested and defined. It’s how what is harmful and false comes to be exposed and discarded.

We argue, we question, we challenge each other, and we grow.

And if my opponent resorts to the ad hominem, to call me a “Bigot with Bible” (to cite a recent example), then that just reveals the emptiness of their argument.

No one should be free to slander and libel another, to defame another with objective untruths. No one should be free to harangue a crowd into violence.

But no one should be prosecuted and fined for simply expressing their beliefs.

In 1965 the United Nations General Assembly drafted its International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination. Everyone agreed that racism was an evil. The Colombian representative, however, as Paul Coleman explains in his fine 2016 monograph Censored, foresaw the painful side-effects to the U.N.’s naïve hate speech laws:

“To penalise ideas, whatever their nature, is to pave the way for tyranny, for the abuse of power…. Ideas are fought with ideas and reasons; theories are refuted with arguments and not by resort to the scaffold, prison, exile, confiscation, or fines.”

That’s why the proposed religious exemption amendments for Tasmania are woefully inadequate.

For a start, who can say what “religion” is? If religion is a belief about why we are here and how we should live, then who isn’t religious? Everyone has a world view, and lives out that view.

More importantly, if freedom of speech is a fundamental human right, then why should only one part of the community, the so-called “religious”, enjoy that right?

Anti-discrimination laws may be well-intentioned. Who doesn’t want to shut up the person who offends, humiliates and intimidates? Who doesn’t want everyone to be free from insult and ridicule? The goal is beautiful, but the means is uselessly vague and subjective.

For the same words that may insult one person, may be simply laughed off by another. What may be felt as ridicule by one, may make another simply think again. What is perceived as intimidating by one person, may be perceived as “robust debate” by another.

So who draws the lines of what speech is right and what speech is wrong? And who decides what a “reasonable” person is?

The answer is: Whoever is the loudest, the cleverest, the one with most access to political power and media publicity. Whoever has the dominant ideology on their side.

Hate speech laws can’t stop the insults. They just make them the prerogative—in an atmosphere of fear—of the powerful and favoured.

This is where Milton sharpens and bolsters our arguments.

In 1644, when the British Parliament legislated against the publication of any book unapproved by her censors, Milton took up the fight in his Areopagitica. The title referred to the forum in ancient Athens where, as St Luke described it, “All the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there spent their time doing nothing but talking about and listening to the latest ideas.”

In the early sixth century BC, it had a quasi-judicial function with “full Power and Authority to enquire how every man lived in the City”, and came to exercise a tyrannical rule over the Athenians’ speech and conduct. For Milton, Parliament was beginning to act the same, and he attacked the new laws with an axe of gold.

Milton saw no need to fear free expression, for even falsehoods help us to get at the truth; “All opinions, yea errors, known, read, and collated, are of main service and assistance toward the speedy attainment of what is truest.”

Free-flowing debate is vital, for when the waters of truth “flow not in a perpetual progression, they sicken into a muddy pool of conformity and tradition.” Instead,

Where there is much desire to learn, thereof necessity will be much arguing, much writing, many opinions; for opinion in good men is but knowledge and truth in the making.

Free public conversation is ultimately good,

For who knows not that Truth is strong next to the Almighty? She needs no policies, nor stratagems, nor licensings to make her victorious; those are the shifts and the defences that error uses against her power.

To censor was to risk overlooking the truth, something that our “gross conforming stupidity” and “triple ice” prejudice does not make unlikely:

If it comes to prohibiting, there is not aught more likely to be prohibited than truth itself; whose first appearance to our eyes, bleared and dimmed with prejudice and custom, is more unsightly and unplausible than many errors.

And to silence truth, intentionally or not, is worse than homicide, for,

Who kills a man kills a reasonable creature, God’s image; but he who destroys a good book, kills reason itself, kills the image of God, as it were in the eye.

Milton’s peroration soars:

Methinks I see in my mind a noble and puissant nation rousing herself like a strong man after sleep, and shaking her invincible locks. Methinks I see her as an eagle mewing her mighty youth, and kindling her undazzled eyes at the full midday beam; purging and unscaling her long-abused sight at the fountain itself of heavenly radiance; while the whole noise of timorous and flocking birds, with those also that love the twilight, flutter about, amazed at what she means.

In sum, “Give me the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties.”

In arguing for free speech, I feel and fear the weight of responsibility. I know that words can deeply wound. I visit the library, and see afresh the droplet of my knowledge against the ocean of my ignorance. I know by sad experience my propensity to say foolish things in a thoughtless way. I know that the right to speak freely is an awesome and fearsome right.

But Milton emboldens me. Hate-speech laws will drown the truth under a morass of fear and prejudice. It is only in the wind and spray of free and stormy conversation that the islands of truth will be exposed and raised and buttressed.

Free speech is fraught, but the alternative is unthinkable. For my humanity isn’t diminished when someone says something hurtful or demeaning to me. It is diminished when someone muzzles me with the threats of prosecution, fines, and imprisonment.

Jesus taught that human evil arises from the heart. The dull cudgel of hate-speech laws can never touch the heart, and so they will never stop the hate, insult, and ridicule.

Hearts will only change, and truth and goodness will only rise, in the midst of speech that is vigorous, logical, and at all times free.

Campbell Markham is a Presbyterian pastor in Hobart, Tasmania.

Campbell Markham lives in Hobart, Tasmania, and has been a Presbyterian pastor for over 20 years. He is married to Amanda-Sue, with grownup children, and teaches a weekly online theology class.