Most of us like the idea of freedom of speech very much.
It’s enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and is the cornerstone of Western democracy.
We like human rights. And we also like Western democracy. They seem to serve us well.
But it appears we are only fierce defenders of freedom of speech under one condition: If that speech happens to perfectly reflect what we think. Then – and only then – is it worth fighting for.
It all began when an 18-year-old woman named Madeline, who was raised Christian, decided to put a Facebook filter on one of her profile pictures. The filter read “It’s OK to vote ‘No'”, regarding the same-sex marriage plebiscite.
Madeline was employed by a woman named Madlin Sims, who runs Canberra-based entertainment company, Capital Kids Parties.
Sims’ brother, a friend of Madeline, alerted the business owner to the filter on Madeline’s Facebook page, and then asked directly if she would take it down.
Madeline refused, and says she calmly explained her ‘no’ vote was consistent with her religious beliefs. Sims, conversely, says Madeline was aggressive and “verbally attacked” her brother. As it stands, there is no evidence for either claim.
Following their disagreement, Sims made the decision to terminate Madeline’s employment with Capital Kids Parties, and informed her via a Facebook message.
After Madeline’s dismissal, Sims posted on Facebook: “Today I fired a staff member who made it public knowledge they feel ‘it’s okay to vote no’. Advertising your desire to vote no for SSM is, in my eyes, hate speech…
POST CONTINUES BELOW: Mia Freedman, Holly Wainwright and I discuss whether it was fair for Madeline to lose her job on Mamamia Out Loud.
“As a business owner, I can’t have somebody who publicly represents my business posting hate speech online.”
Sims argued it’s bad for business, she doesn’t like “shit morals,” and she doesn’t want homophobes working for her, “especially in an environment with children”.
“It’s not okay to vote no,” she said. “It’s not okay to be homophobic.”
Since being fired, and having her dismissal plastered across the homepages of every media publication in the country, Madeline has agreed that she was very wrong, the religion she has adhered to for 18 years is clearly outdated and homophobic, and thanks to all the time she’s had to sit and reflect, she will now be voting ‘Yes’.
Except, of course, that is not at all how the business of changing minds works.
Today, Madeline told Triple J’s Hack, “I have been raised a Christian my whole life and in the bible God clearly states that a man and a man, and a woman and a woman, are not to be together.
“I love everyone, I’m not a hateful person at all and I do believe everyone should have equality, but to vote yes to me is something I can’t do.”
Madeline was fired because she put a filter on a Facebook photo that demonstrated a political belief.
Good things have never come from policing how people think, or from attempts to homogenise public opinion.
In fact, punishing people for what they believe led to the most terrifying and deadly fascist regimes of the 20th Century.
William O. Douglas, who lived through the First and Second World War, said, "Restriction of free thought and free speech is the most dangerous of all subversions."
We cannot defend our own right to be unreligious, whilst punishing others for being religious.
We cannot defend our own right to be vocal participants in the 'Yes' campaign, while simultaneously silencing those who want to vote 'No'.
The government has asked for Madeline's opinion, and she lost her job for expressing it.
History has shown us it's a slippery slope. When we publicly punish those who dissent, we begin to resemble Soviet Russia. Or a cult. Or Nazi Germany. Or the People's Republic of North Korea.
None are worlds I ever wish to live in.
It was Queen Elizabeth 1 who famously told her subjects, “I have no desire to make windows into men's souls," referring to her firm belief that people should not be punished for what they think in private.
Our attempts to police how people think have, in the last two years, led us to catastrophic stalemates. People are afraid to voice opinions that are "politically incorrect", but as we learned from the case of Trump in the United States, and Brexit in the United Kingdom - yelling at people to shut up does not change how they vote.
What happened to Madeline has played perfectly into the hands of the 'No' campaign, because now they get to frame themselves as the victims. They're being ridiculed, socially ostracised and morally assassinated for expressing an opinion.
And that is not democracy.
The argument for voting 'Yes' is strong enough - logically and philosophically - without having to resort to censorship.
The discussion is not over, and for many, it is painful.
But when freedom of speech becomes conditional, it ceases to be freedom of speech at all.
We do not have to agree with Madeline, but if we care about democracy, if we care about justice, and we care about progress, we must defend her right to an opinion.
You can listen to the full episode of Mamamia Out Loud, here.
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