Sunday Herald Sun - Stellar

“Who gets to say what? It’s the question of our time”


Right now, somewhere in the Zoom etherspace, a group of 20 people from around the world are meeting to decide the answer to one very important question: Should Donald Trump be allowed back onto Facebook?

You’ll remember that Mr Trump was indefinite­ly suspended from the platform last month for the small matter of inciting a riot on the US Capitol, in which five people were killed. One would think “incitement of deadly riot on US Capitol” would be a clause in an oft-used Facebook manual entitled Unequivoca­l Reasons To Indefinite­ly Suspend Someone And Never Think About It Again, but apparently not because the decision is being reviewed by something called the Facebook oversight board – that is, the 20 people currently floating about in the Zoom etherspace.

Who gets to say what, when, where and to whom has become the question of our times. I imagine it might be frustratin­g over at Social Media HQ, as employees scurry to ban accounts that spread hate and misinforma­tion, only to be told by hordes of users with flags in their profile pictures and joke pronouns in their bios, “I Have A RIGHT TO free speech.”

Something tells me that when “free speech” was first being mulled over at an Athenian orgy some 3000 years ago, its proponents likely never envisioned having to decide whether the president of the most powerful country on Earth espousing the virtues of disinfecta­nt as a possible treatment for a raging deadly global pandemic constitute­d free speech or not. “I can’t say that has crossed my mind,” says Socrates, while peeling a grape.

In much the same way, Mark Zuckerberg probably never envisioned having to kick a president off his platform when he first conceived the idea in 2004.

“The right to free speech doesn’t exist. At least not in the way some people think it does”

“But your honour,” he’ll no doubt plead one day. “I only invented Facebook to rate girls at Harvard.”

Here’s the rub. The right to free speech doesn’t exist. At least not in the way some people think it does. It’s not unfettered, nor has it ever been. There’s not a society on God’s slowly deteriorat­ing Earth that bestows upon its citizens the right to say what they want, how they want, where they want, to whom they want without repercussi­on. Even the strongest of liberal democracie­s has its limitation­s, including us… or, rather, especially us.

It may interest you to know that we don’t actually have a right to free speech in Australia. No, really! What we have is an implied constituti­onal right to freedom of political communicat­ion, the meaning of which the High Court has been trying, with varying degrees of success, to clarify for 30 years.

In a recent case, it figured it was easier to tell the public what it doesn’t mean, stating (in an exasperate­d voice): “As has been emphasised by this Court repeatedly… the implied freedom of political communicat­ion is not a personal right of free speech.” Righto.

This takes us back to the world’s most highly strung Zoom meeting. Someone has to make the decision about who gets to say what, when, where and to whom, and there’s no easy answer, even though humanity has been mulling it over for thousands of years. I don’t envy Facebook’s oversight board. I don’t envy the High Court. I don’t envy anyone who has to make decisions around free speech. I just hope they make the right call.

Jan Fran is a journalist, presenter and ambassador for Plan Internatio­nal

Australia, a charity for girls’ equality.

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