Lomborg v UWA: Why Free Speech doesn’t come with a Platform
What is often lost in the debate about the right to free speech is the exact bounds of that right. Tim Wilson’s article in the Australian today decrying the axing of Bjorn Lomborg’s proposed Australian Consensus Centre at UWA exemplifies this misunderstanding – although it comes from an unlikely source. In that article he wrote: “The University of Western Australia’s decision to reject Bjorn Lomborg’s Australian Consensus Centre is disturbing for its validation of a culture of soft censorship.” However, as he correctly identifies “the human right of free speech is about ensuring laws don’t restrict what people can say” and as that helps stimulate the development of ideas it “requires more than just stopping censorious laws”.
However, the human right to free speech does not extend to giving people a publicly funded platform from which to voice their views. A pertinent example comes from the Festival for Dangerous Ideas in 2014. They had added to their billing a member of Hizb ut-Tahrir whos speech was titled “Honour killings are morally justified”. This evoked outrage from the event sponsors who did not want their names and the world renowned Sydney Opera House linked with such an abhorrent concept. Amongst those sponsors who called for the speech to be cut was the Centre for Independent Studies, a think tank whose very mission involves “Individual liberty and choice, including freedom of association, religion, speech and the right to property”.
So how did they justify removing this speech from the event? They did because the right to freedom of speech does not include a right to exercise this speech on any platform you wish. The CIS did not want to help fund them to receive a platform because they did not want their name linked with those ideas. In an article defending the position Jeremy Sammut noted “this is not a form of censorship, and questioning the appropriateness of discussing the proposed topic in the proposed forum was never a matter of curbing free speech”. Although the content discusses is different, that does not change the extent of the right to free speech. As Noam Chomsky has said "If we don't believe in Freedom of Expression for people we despise, we don't believe in it at all".
Similarly, the student body and the academics of UWA in protesting against Lomborg were simply arguing against giving him funding and the use of the UWA platform from which to legitimise his arguments. Any failure for the other side of the debate to be heard merely exemplifies his own inability to defend his Centre. The university listened to the arguments against and decided to not put money into the idea, it would be wrong to call that censorship. This is especially so when Lomborg can still receive private funding and operate his centre from America as he currently does, and the fact the government will still seek to set the centre up in another tertiary institution. In short, he can still freely speak, just not with the name of UWA behind him.
So next time you get kicked out of a forum or facebook group, don’t throw your arms up and act as a harbinger of the doomed right to free speech we once enjoyed. Just because you want to say something, the right to free speech does not mean people need to give you a platform on which to say it.