“Il est interdit d’interdire”! It is forbidden to forbid! Free speech and the spirit of ’68.


One of the most positive qualities of the great upheavals of the year 1968 was the assumption that people had a right to free speech. No-one was going to stop us speaking out, no matter how offensive some people found what we had to say – and we definitely were not going to allow the state to determine what could and couldn’t be said. Governments had forced the issue by banning publications – to protect us from ourselves – ranging from seedy crime novels to DH Lawrence’s ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’.

On the university campuses that helped fuel the ‘cultural revolution’ of that time, it was never doubted that we should have a right to say what we thought on any topic. The global student unrest had been sparked in 1964 by the Berkeley Free Speech Movement, where students and staff defied the University of California’s regulations restricting free speech.

In the People’s Republic of China a similar movement led by the young was underway, with ‘Big Character Posters‘ pasted up on buildings and in streets criticizing reactionary authorities within the Communist Party of China. Mao ZeDong said that  “The big-character poster is a very useful new weapon, which can be used in the cities and the rural areas, in factories, co-operatives, shops, government institutions, schools, army units and streets – in short, wherever the masses are to be found. It has already been widely used and should always be used.”

This was overturned in amendments to the Chinese Constitution in 1982, however, when reference to the right to produce Big Character Posters was removed.

One of my first defiant acts in ‘the Sixties’ took place in 1968, my final year at high school in Melbourne, when I unlawfully distributed to my fellow students a banned publication exposing US war crimes in Vietnam. I forget the exact title but it was banned under Obscene Publications legislation. I was very nervous giving out copies at school, without being part of any organised radical student group, as I was isolated and worried about getting into trouble – especially for distributing ‘obscene’ literature!

In my first year at University, in 1969, the free speech question again arose: a contingent of La Trobe students, organised by the Labour Club (not to be confused with Labor Party!), went to Melbourne’s City Square to defy with other protestors the Melbourne City Council’s bylaw 418, which prohibited the distribution of literature in the Central Business District. The bylaw claimed to be neutral but was really an attempt to suppress the handing out of leaflets opposing the US and allied aggression in Vietnam.

There is some irony in the fact that 50 years later, the assumption that individuals should be free to say what they think is in reversal. Groups who may think of themselves as ‘left-wing’ or ‘radical’ today seek to do what the overt right-wing reactionaries of the 1960s did: namely, protect us from ourselves in the interests of cohesion and harmony. It’s scary stuff – or should be. And especially worrying when it happens on campuses, usually through collusion between official student representatives and University authorities.

Perhaps Australia would benefit from its own version of the UK’s Free Speech University Rankings (FSUR), which are conducted by the on-line group, Spiked.

Spiked has just published its fourth annual report, and it shows that campus censorship isn’t going away. Their survey, ranking 115 UK universities using a ‘traffic-light system’, shows that 55 per cent of universities now actively censor speech, 39 per cent stifle speech through excessive regulation, and just six per cent are truly free, open places. What’s more, in some areas, the severity of restrictions seems to be increasing. The FSUR survey found that almost half of all institutions attempt to censor or chill criticism of religion and transgenderism. It concludes that ‘There are blasphemies on campus, new and old, that students commit at their peril’.

The spirit of 1968 – a spirit that boils down to the right to confront and engage in the open exchange and debate of ideas – in a word ‘to rebel’ – is in urgent need of revival, especially if the next global capitalist crisis is ‘the big one’.

The late 1960s to early 1970s were years of success for the Left precisely because we created a milieu in which reactionaries in power and within the movement could be exposed and challenged. There was meaningful debate about what it meant to be left-wing, set against the context of real struggle. We challenged the old revisionist farts of the Communist Party of Australia as well as the old conservative farts of the Coalition Government.

I commenced this post with the words “One of the most positive qualities”. It would not be accurate to say that the whole cultural and political movement from the late 1960s to the early 1970s in Australia, with its many factions and outlets for expression, was consistently imbued with the ‘free speech’ ethos. And after the movement’s quick decline, an authoritarianism set in – among some/too many (though not all) – that ran counter to the earlier rebellious ethos. At its worst, some of us turned into our opposites. I personally regret that very much. It applied to me, too – but not everyone. It’s what happens when you stop thinking and become obedient, a follower rather than a critical thinker. You can be obedient to the state or to the gods or God – or, in my case, to a party leadership. Big mistake.

There were some terrific – poetic – slogans from the French student-worker uprising of 1968. “Il est interdit d’interdire”! “It is forbidden to forbid” represents a certain spirit. Of course, if it is dissected clinically, one can immediately think of flaws and exceptions: is it forbidden to forbid murder? But it is the spirit of that slogan that mattered back then. And still does.



3 thoughts on ““Il est interdit d’interdire”! It is forbidden to forbid! Free speech and the spirit of ’68.

  1. I agree withe post however I think with freedom comes responsibility and people who shy away from freedom are shying away from responsibility. We have to be responsible for what we say and that means we have to think about and research it. Repeating things you want to believe is not free speech.


  2. A good post and one for the times (the Spiked crew have been banging on about this for some time and with good reason). Your reference to the Big Character posters of the Cultural Revolution and their use as a tool of free speech, especially for the peasantry, many of whom remained illiterate or functionally illiterate, reminded me of why the conservative through to reactionary elements in the CCP, especially at the village/regional levels, hated them so much. No need to defer to editors or have one’s hands figuratively tied by which way the wind was blowing. It was an organ of free speech that fitted the times and circumstances and empowered those at the bottom for the first time in history. Yes, yes, there’d been a revolution and the CCP were in power but at this early stage that represents a political revolution, a change at the top where many – perhaps the majority – saw it as their brief to do things on behalf of the proverbial toiling masses as opposed to encouraging said masses to learn how to do things for themselves, a social revolution, especially if doing things for themselves threatened to diminish the power and accruing privileges those at the top were beginning to enjoy. It is no coincidence that these mass organs, that ironically anticipated Twitter by many decades, were banned in the early 80’s and a return to the ‘good old days’ of deferring to authority and social harmony imposed. I am reminded of the old nursery rhyme Baa, Baa Black Sheep and the unctuous lines ‘Yes sir, no sir, three bags full sir.’ The rhyme has a probable medieval origin and the reactionary elements that detested the Big Character Posters and later had them banned would instinctively and approvingly be drawn to it; they sing from the same song sheet.
    It’s probably worth adding that the reason I jumped at your Cultural Revolution reference was prompted by my just finishing The Unknown Cultural Revolution: Life and Change in a Chinese Village by Dongpin Han. Now an academic in the US he was born in rural China and grew up in a village during the CR. He is very sympathetic to the aims of the CR and very astute about the reactionary wing of the CCP and the feudal cultural drag that exercised such an influence upon it.
    When I first read the post I was left wondering about (still am) the wtf question – the ‘w’ is for why and not what – that is, why has this reactionary shift occurred, not just at unis, but more generally? It says something about bourgeois societies (and yes, us too) in the late 20th and early 21st C. That is, it is a reaction and not an initiative. That this has occurred alongside the rise of Islamic fascism internationally adds a further layer. I’m still trying to think something coherent here so I need to hold my fire a bit and come back to it.
    In the mean time I’ll sign off with a brief comment on Tomb’s comment that with freedom comes responsibility. Yep, sure does and 30 years work in groups and other formats with men and domestic/family violence, including several refugee communities, has been quite a teacher on this one. But the observation you make needs to be made more concrete. To whom should we be responsible and for what? Our social betters come down heavily on the responsibility side (us to them, that is – yes sir, no sir…) we on the freedom side. Here responsibility is not imposed, it is taken and yes, you’re right in suggesting that a lot of people balk at this and head in the other direction including too many who have or still refer to themselves as radical, progressive etc.


  3. Free speech is something the so called Left is happy to talk about, as long it adheres to their Liberal left view of the world.

    It was interesting during the marriage equality debate, how many of the so called Left made it clear only one viewpoint was allowed. No discussion of whether marriage is a worthwhile process, or if it’s valid,let alone discussing that marriage is based on property rights, no it was made clear only a pro YES voice was allowed, no further correspondence would be entered into.

    In sections of the non corporate media world, you’d hear only one viewpoint. Debate on the merits of the vote wasn’t allowed. There was not even scope to allow a no voice to be heard and argued with. If someone allowed a no voice to appear on the air waves, they’d e be removed from your program.

    I’ve heard about employers in the caring industries, requiring their staff to wear Rainbow lanyards, changing their e-mail signatures to include the insertion of a rainbow flag . No discussion, critical thinking not encouraged, just accept this it. Rote learning seemingly the desired approach.

    The proponents of the above actions are constant critics of gagging whistle blowers, vigilant in support of the rights of asylum seekers and refugees to be heard, all noble gestures.

    However for these entities it seems free speech might be about everyone agreeing with their leadership view(s). Critical thinking, no:

    I do not support free speech for fascists, but i t’s important ideas,perspectives are debated. Free speech in Australia has a long way to go.


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