Tuesday, 13 December 2011

We need to get a couple of things straight...

Meryl Dorey is back on the scene. For those that do not know, she is the president of the Australian Vaccination Network and, though the name would tell you otherwise, advocates an anti-vaccination position for children. She is, more or less, the Australian Jenny McCarthy.

Left: Dorey.  Right: McCarthy.
See the similarity?
This time, Meryl is coming to the Woodford Folk Festival. You can find good summaries of the issue here and here and here, so I won't repeat them ad infinitum. If you're reading this blog, chances are you agree that Meryl Dorey is a big silly idiot and being allowed to speak at a festival like this poses a danger to public health. Agreed? Good. (Not agreed? Comment section is below. Go nuts!)

I need to mention two things really quickly, because the institution of Free Speech is being bashed about the head with a great big misconception stick and I really think we should set a couple of things straight.

The overwhelming Meryl-Supporting reaction in the comments sections of the blogs tackling this issue has been to express that removing Meryl from the program is tantamount to destroying her right to Free Speech. There are lots of reasons why this is not true.

  • The Woodford Folk Festival is a private function. The concept of free speech means that the government may not dictate what you say or when you say it, provided it is not an incitement. Within the confines of a private enterprise like this, you may tell people exactly what words may issue from their mouths. In the same way you can set a dress code, you can set a speech code. That's the way it works. Clear?
  • Free Speech does not mean that you are entitled to a broadcasting platform. You are free to spread your message however you want to, but nobody is obliged to provide you the means by which you spread it. If Meryl Dorey is entitled to a speaking slot at a major festival then so is literally everybody else. Seeing as they haven't offered me the chance to get up and espouse my ever-controversial and dangerous Ron Is Dumbledore theories, I guess that means they don't have to. And it means they don't have to do it for Meryl Dorey, either.
  • Removing someone from a speaking line up due to overwhelming public outcry is far from a limitation of free speech - it is democratic free speech at its best. The people who wanted Dorey off the program? The way they express this is through the medium of speech, unrestricted by interference. You can't say that Meryl's free speech matters, but the free speech of everyone that wants her gone does not. Once she's off the list of speakers, she's free to voice herself against these people in the same manner that they did. She doesn't need a podium & an appearance fee for it. (Disclaimer: I do not know if Meryl Dorey is going to recieve an appearance fee).

And that is the end of the first thing. If Woodford decided to remove Meryl Dorey from their program, it wouldn't be a violation of free speech. Get it? Got it? Good.

Now, the next thing...

Skeptics, rationalists, parents and all-round good people have been on this. I mean, I have considered making blog posts about it but...did you read those ones I linked to? What could I possibly add? A 900-plus comment thread over at Mamma Mia? So many people have got this covered that talking about it seems almost irrelevant at this point.

But there's one tiny little niggling thing I want to take issue with. When (quite correctly) deflecting the issue away from 'Free Speech' and back to Dorey's dangerous claims, I think some of us are being just a tad short sighted. There are two arguments against this being a Free Speech violation that, I think, have the potential to be more harmful than good.

  • Saying that Free Speech is moot in the face of false information - even dangrously false information - isn't quite true. The old "Yelling fire in a crowded theatre" maxim is just so devoid of nuance and foresight that it really is troubling to see it cited so many times by well-intentioned people. Dorey is spreading dangerous misinformation, but the solution to this is the overwhelming application of positive, accurate information - not silencing her altogether. We've already been through why this particular case is not a violation of free speech, but none of us should be willing to admit that, given the chance, we'd have her views edited out of the spectrum.

    You can yell fire in a crowded theatre when there is none. Seriously, you can - but people are not going to like it. And when the day comes that there's a real fire, little boy who cried wolf, you're fucked. But consider: if you're going to outlaw yelling 'Fire!' in a crowded theatre, what happens when there actually is a fire and the person who sees it is so terrified of a false alarm that he stays quiet? It's not the right road to go down. Meryl can keep yelling fire all she likes. It's up to us to say, even louder, 'No, actually, there isn't.'
  •  Many people have made a point of the fact that Australia has no bill of rights and, hence, no enshrined right to freedom of speech. Quite correct. But my goodness, why on Earth are we making a fuss about that? We have the implied right to free speech and, given our democratic state, I rather fancy that it is a right that we can claim despite its literal absence. I should like to think that, were we to find an instance of the government attempting to silence dissent against the principles of free speech, that we would all be outraged and offended and take action. If Meryl Dorey - yes, even she - were being forcibly silenced, I'd be compelled to speak out on her behalf about the wrongness of the situation.

    Taking refuge in the fact that there is no enshrined right to free speech in this country is a dangerous thing. Even though it doesn't apply to this situation, I really don't think it's a good idea to keep bringing it up. The day may easily come that all of us are faced with a legitimate infraction on our right to speak freely, only to have some smug anti-vaxxer turn to us and say 'Oh, but, there's no right to free speech in this country - you said so!'. Don't let it happen. Stop using this one as an answer to people who have free speech concerns. It helps nobody - least of all internet bloggers, commenters and writers.

That's all! Sorry if I was long winded and/or incoherent.

I'm looking forward to seeing how this pans out. I'll post updates here, but they'll likely just be links to people who know better. Until then!


  1. I take exception to this blog post. What you post is wrong and downright misleading. Ron is NOT Dumbledore. How you could even suggest this I do not know!

    The rest I agree with however.

  2. Ros! You had me going for a second there :p

    I googled it, by the way, and lots of doctors think Ron is Dumbledore.