Cogito

The people we don’t want to stand with: Free speech - again - and the troubling case of Troy Newman

Keep Abortion Legal Protest against Focus on the Family s Stand for the Family event Source Wikimedia commons Photograph by Tony Webster.

In previous Cogito posts, I have defended freedom of speech, interpreted in a broad, non-legalistic sense. For example, I have defended Peter Singer’s liberty to express his controversial views on issues at the beginning and end of life. As I’ve acknowledged, I am sympathetic to Singer’s viewpoint, but I would also wish to defend philosophical bioethicists who argue for positions differing greatly from mine.

But what if we’re dealing with individuals whose views are, by my lights, truly extreme and deplorable? In responding to such outliers, what sorts of lines should we draw? The current controversy in Australia over anti-abortion campaigner, Troy Newman, brings those questions into focus.

Newman banned from Australia

As has been widely reported, several Labor politicians recently requested that Newman be prevented from visiting Australia for a ten-day tour under the auspices of Right to Life Australia. The request was subsequently granted, and Newman’s visa was cancelled under the Migration Act.

In a further twist, he travelled to Australia on a United Airlines flight, only to be detained by Australian Border Force officials at Tullamarine Airport in Melbourne. As I write, he is taking action in the High Court in an attempt to avoid deportation. Whether or not this proves successful, Newman has been turned into a something of martyr, not to mention a cause célèbre, for his views.

Going to extremes

Troy Newman is president of an American anti-abortion organisation called Operation Rescue. According to press reports, he has advocated the death penalty for carrying out an abortion (which he regards as a form of murder) in his co-authored book, with Cheryl Sullenger, Their Blood Cries Out. Perhaps even more troubling, he protested in 2003 at the execution of convicted murderer Paul Jennings Hill - not because he opposes the death penalty (he evidently does not), but because he saw some justification in the murders committed by Hill in 1994. Hill’s victims were the doctor at an abortion clinic in Pensacola, Florida, and the doctor’s bodyguard.

Generally, however, Newman does not appear to advocate direct violence by private individuals. He claims to have no intention of inciting or promoting such acts. Rather, he says, he wants to prohibit abortion through the legal system.

For the record, I certainly don’t regard abortion as murder, or even as something that merits social condemnation. In addition, I oppose the death penalty even for murder. As I see things, furthermore, women’s reproductive rights are required for the large-scale and ongoing social transition rightly demanded by the feminist movement. Thus, my substantive views on abortion could scarcely be more different from Newman’s.

In the past, I have been pleased to say that I stand with Peter Singer when attempts are made to prevent him speaking. Like many other people throughout the world, I also used the Twitter hashtag #JeSuisCharlie when the French satirical magazine, Charlie Hebdo, was attacked by Islamist terrorists and many of its staff were murdered. Indeed, I still support Charlie Hebdo. In an article published in Free Inquiry, however, I noted that things would be somewhat different if Charlie Hebdo really were a racist, and otherwise vicious, publication as claimed by many of its critics. In those circumstances, we might defend its legal right to publish; surely, however, we’d be less comfortable about using slogans that express solidarity.

To say the least, I am not comfortable about expressing any solidarity with the likes of Newman. Outright expressions of solidarity suggest, if not overall approval, at least an implication that someone is a valued participant in public debate. Judging by reports, Newman’s ideas are so repugnant that I’d not want to give any impression of somehow being on his side or of valuing his contribution to discussion in the public square.

A liberal response

But does it follow that Newman should be prevented from touring Australia to promote his political views?

He is free to express them in his own country, the United States, so actions such as those taken by the Australian authorities cannot totally silence him. Nonetheless, he is being prevented from delivering his message to an Australian audience in the way that he has chosen (and which might be effective). We can assume that he and his affiliated organisations would not be interested in the planned tour unless they expected it to win hearts and minds (or at least to boost the zeal and morale of the local anti-abortion tribe).

It’s futile, then, trying to argue that stopping his Australian tour has no implications related to free speech. Newman and his associates are being denied platforms that are otherwise available to them and are clearly important to their plans. This restricts their ability to spread opinions and arguments about the legality or otherwise of abortion, and about what penalties should apply to it if it’s illegal.

Newman and his associates should be able to express their views publicly. I still maintain, as I’ve said in regard to other cases such as that of Geert Wilders when he sought to visit the UK, that the public authorities should bear a heavy burden before they can justify interfering with the liberties of individuals in response to things that the individuals have said, or in an effort to pre-empt things that the individuals are likely to say.

As I acknowledged in respect of the decision (duly overturned) to keep Wilders out of the UK, entry into a foreign country could be considered a privilege, rather than a right. However, as I quickly added, that distinction is simplistic. Generally speaking, we all have the legitimate expectation that we will be allowed to travel from one country to another for peaceful purposes such as tours involving lectures and media appearances.

I am not doubting that there can exceptional situations, particularly where there is a very high risk of imminent violent lawlessness. But so far as I am currently aware, there is little, if anything, in the way of evidence that Newman planned to cross the line into inciting private acts of violence against any specific abortion providers or even against abortion providers as a general class. It appears to be his practice not to call for the commission of violent acts except under the authority of the law, i.e. as punishments when someone is convicted of a crime.

Despite Newman’s past statement in defence of Hill’s murders, there is no evidence that he planned to urge murders, or any other acts of private violence, while in Australia. But if I’m wrong about that - if some convincing evidence exists that he was intending to incite or promote private violence - I at least hope that the facts will become available to the public as a matter of urgency.

For now, it appears that the ban on Newman’s entry to Australia was solely or largely because of his views as to what the law should be in respect of abortion. In short, he was banned solely or largely for advocating political views deemed by the Australian federal authorities to be intolerable.

I do not feel conflicted, therefore, in stating clearly that Newman should not have been denied a visa solely or largely for his political views. Nor should his publications, including Their Blood Cries Out, be censored or prohibited. He should have a legal right to express even extreme, repugnant, outrageous views on public policy relating to abortion. This is quintessentially political speech, which merits especially strong legal and social protection from political suppression.

I would like to see views such as Newman’s pushed to the margins of what is accorded any credibility in a modern liberal democracy such as Australia. But it’s a further, far more drastic, step to attempt to suppress his views by political force, or to punish him for them. That is manifestly authoritarian. Even if it survives a High Court challenge, this step should not be taken by any government of a modern liberal democracy.

Ironies

One irony is that Newman is, himself, a blatant authoritarian. He seeks criminalisation, and suggests harsh punishment, for what should - at least in my view of the world - be very private choices. Thus, we see a hardline authoritarian activist turning into a poster boy for free speech. Well done, Australia! Newman is now well placed, in his future efforts, to invoke a liberal understanding of the role of the state that he does not profess in his own activism.

Fine distinctions can be made within liberal thought as to when, how, and how far we must tolerate the intolerant. Newman can, however, easily cut through all of that. As events have unfolded, he can claim, quite accurately, that he has been treated in an illiberal manner during his efforts to enter Australia and promote his ideas.

Blocking his proposed tour may even have perverse results: the eventual effect will be to give more publicity to his views than if he had simply been allowed to travel and speak relatively quietly.

Complications

It does not follow that someone as divisive as Newman would be an appropriate choice as, say, a university’s graduation speaker, or as someone to receive an honorary degree. More generally, freedom of speech does not require access to highly privileged platforms and other honours. Normally, however, it should give some protection against being excluded from entry to an entire country where you are scheduled to speak.

It is also worth insisting that there are limits to the concept of free speech. At its foundation is the right to express ideas on general issues, which certainly includes political issues such as the legality of abortion. It does not follow that the ideas can be expressed at any time, in any place, or in any manner whatsoever. I cannot, for example, express my opposition to a disliked politician’s election by burning down her house.

Keeping someone out of an entire country because of what he might say on general issues (or for what he has said in the past) is illiberal. It does not follow that it would be illiberal to prevent him from publishing false, serious and defamatory allegations about a particular individual, perhaps in his own efforts to silence an opponent. Issues to do with free speech are not simple and they are not best handled with absolutist zeal.

In the current situation, Newman and his associates should have the right to give speeches and lectures calling for the prohibition of abortion and proposing criminal penalties for it. They should have the right to publish books, articles, and blog posts, to send letters to newspapers, to organise peacefully among themselves, to give interviews and to conduct peaceful political demonstrations.

It doesn’t follow, however, that anti-abortion campaigners should have the right to get up close and personal in harassing women who are going about their business obtaining legal abortions. There is much to be said against the more oppressive tactics adopted by many anti-abortion campaigners in Australia and elsewhere, and I think some emphasis should be given to this even while decrying state action to suppress political ideas.

Final thoughts

In a recent article in The Spectator, Brendan O'Neill makes the case - quite correctly - that free speech does not apply only to people who agree with you. While that is fine as far as it goes, O'Neill may be too impatient in dismissing a view that he quotes from one of his previous readers: “it is possible to support freedom of expression in principle without feeling motivated enough to campaign for an expression of ideas which you disagree with.”

Surely there’s something correct in that quotation. Part of the difficulty is that no one can fight every individual battle that arises over freedom of speech. I can insist as a general point that my opponents should have freedom of speech, without having the time and inclination to put up my hand for each specific opponent who runs into difficulties.

It is natural and justifiable to give priority to people who have something to say that seems intellectually attractive or socially valuable, or to people who are suffering disproportionately over speech that at least seems innocuous or reasonable. In my case, I don’t have the time or energy to argue on each particular occasion for the free-speech rights of each homophobe or jihadist or racist, of every particular crank or extremist or bigot of some kind, who gets into trouble over some deplorable message.

Yet, if we never defend the free speech of specific cranks, extremists, and the rest, that itself conveys a message: it looks as if we support freedom only for the expression of ideas that we personally like or see as having some merit. On this occasion, then, I am having my say about someone whose views I clearly dislike. This is an appropriate occasion to speak out, since it involves illiberal action by the authorities in my own country.

For all that, Newman’s ideas should be opposed strongly and relentlessly on their merits. Although he may not directly incite violence, extreme anti-abortion campaigners like Newman add to an environment in which women’s reproductive rights are difficult to extend further and are always vulnerable to being cut back. Furthermore, it’s an environment in which many women may feel (and even be) unsafe in seeking to exercise their rights.

We should not try to suppress political ideas, but there is still something very disturbing about Newman, and I can at least understand the urge to keep his message out of Australia.

With that in mind, I’ll conclude by urging that we defend and extend abortion rights - and that we take further initiatives to protect women from violence or harassment for exercising their rights. Their reproductive freedom is essential to their autonomy as individuals, and also to our society’s transition to gender equality.

Freedom of speech is important, but so is reproductive freedom. To the full extent that I can, I stand with women who need it.

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