Scott McIntyre is out of job. Anzac day is safe. Don’t worry we’ve been told, freedom of speech is not in play, it’s just an employment issue. If that leaves you unsettled, good, it should.
We have seen this story before. A group outraged by some speech initiates a campaign of condemnation. Supporters of the subject claim her freedom of speech is being attacked. The ‘outraged’ claim they are merely exercising their right to be offended.
Whether it is left-wing university activists seeking to silence speech that is “intrinsically harmful”, or the establishment seeking to sack a football commentator, it should be clear this is more than the mere exercise of a right to be offended. It is channeling that offence into an effort to silence dissenting views.
Before we go further, I should note my own views on the tweets are irrelevant. For my purposes, it is sufficient to say his speech has value. As Tim Wilson, Human Rights Commissioner rightly pointed out, McIntyre expressed views on “political interpretations of history and that is open for debate”.
Wilson himself has endorsed the concept this incident is not about “free speech”. He reposted an article where he chastised people who thought public service codes of conduct might conflict with free speech as not understanding “what free speech is”. He argued codes of conduct are compatible with free speech provided an employee’s freedom to engage in the democratic process is not excessively infringed.
This just begs the question, when do codes of conduct coupled with a vigilant online community, start to restrict an individual’s expression and undermine our public discussion?
The community has always had power to sanction people for their ideas, independent of government. In the late 20th Century, to get a proper mob going you needed press coverage, and so the power to shame resided with established news media.
The Internet has democratized, widened, and enhanced that power. We now all have the privilege of a printing press in our pockets. We have perfect circulation; anyone networked can read anything we say, friends and foes.
In response to any affront, an outraged group can mobilize expeditiously. A positive consequence of this is political minorities can call out behavior they find offensive, rather than relying on the established press to be the guardians of virtue.
The result is an enhanced power for the community to punish speakers. First, you can just shame them, which can be pretty harrowing. If folks feel sufficiently aggrieved they can pitch for real world consequences: unemployment. Sometimes the outraged post the offender’s home address online, such was the case of Mariam Veiszadeh.
It’s not quite as menacing as the state throwing you in prison, burning books, or making Andrew Bolt apologize. But an online mob can exercise, or pressure others, to exercise coercive power. Anyone who says being fired from your job isn’t coercive has never been fired.
Most importantly, censorship, rather than discussion, is what the mob usually wants. In this case McIntyre’s critics chose not to debate his views. They just declared the tweets blasphemous and demanded his sacking. The aim was to punish the speaker, and to deter others from expressing similar sentiments.
Clearly, there are some jobs where you cannot just say what you like in public. An adviser to a Minister on economic policy cannot write op-eds criticizing the PM’s policy. An employee of a private health insurer might have to give up their dream to write books on alternative medicine. Where though, is the line?
For some, McIntyre’s is an easy case. I concede that one can make a good argument that working on-screen for a public broadcaster is a special case. If you have a public profile you must accept your job is dependent on the public. Want to host the Today Show? You might need to keep your radical ideas to yourself.
Also, the public broadcaster has a special responsibility to represent the whole community, and as such demands a certain degree of decorum from its employees.
McIntyre’s situation is more complex. He is a football commentator, not a political one. His tweets favored neither political party. Contrary to the assertion of SBS management, there is no evidence his audience had lost confidence in him. He was fired because people, many of whom may not even like football (they still call it soccer), deemed his tweets offensive.
Further, do we really believe the campaign would have been any less vitriolic if McIntyre worked for Fox Sports? In the United States Lindsey Stone was fired for “flipping the bird” at the Arlington military cemetery. Her conduct undermined the “charities” values. These lines seem to shift depending on who the mob is after.
If we are going to extend the “taxpayer funded” analogy how far does it extend? Do Centrelink desk workers, government lawyers, and public school teachers all have to accept that piety on Anzac day is a condition of employment?
In a connected world, any speech deemed offensive enough could implicate the brand of an employer, and breach a code of conduct drafted by some risk-allergic functionary. Surely this has a chilling effect on free speech.
Anyone who needs to pay their bills will think twice before expressing views about subjects.
There is a risk the freedom to be unorthodox or offensive becomes a privilege, exercisable by those secure enough to take the risk, or those with a benefactor. Take for example, the Murdoch press who, as Rafi Alam showed have not been wasting their privilege to be offensive.
So no, being shamed by an online mob, and sacked from your job is not as serious as state-based censorship. The power of the state is still the most dangerous threat to free expression. Nevertheless, being fired and shamed is a form of punishment for your ideas. It discourages dissent, effectively silencing a speaker, and limits the scope of our national conversation.
What should we do? I don’t know. My aim here is modest: to show that when we organize so swiftly that someone is fired on Sunday morning for something they say on Saturday night, freedom of speech is implicated.
It was an illustration that the Internet has given society extraordinary power to speak, coupled with an unprecedented power to stifle unwanted opinions.
And no, I’m still not telling you what I think of the tweets, it’s still beside the point.