Freedom of speech

So much for the “Freedom Commissioner”

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Less than three years after the Coalition government appointed Tim Wilson as the “Freedom Commissioner“, Attorney-General George Brandis has now appointed someone from an organisation which has repeatedly been on the wrong side of debates on freedoms, and public policy more generally.

This is just some of what the Public Interest Advocacy Centre – led by the new Human Rights Commissioner Edward Santow – has said in recent years:

Freedom of speech:

PIAC has welcomed the Federal Government’s decision not to proceed with proposed changes to section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act…

‘Freedom of speech is a crucial human right but so too is the right not to be vilified on the basis of your race or ethnicity. Serious race-based insult, offence and humiliation can be deeply wounding and threatens important aspects of Australia’s liberal democracy,’ said Edward Santow, PIAC’s CEO.

Constitutional recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders:

PIAC generally supports the proposal for a statement of values or recognition, which appropriately recognises Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in the Constitution… PIAC submits that constitutional protection is imperative to protect the rights of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians against racial discrimination.

Freedom of religion:

We oppose, in particular, the granting of blanket exemptions to churches and religious organisations from anti-discrimination laws.

Suing Coles for its “discriminatory” website:

“Ms Mesnage relies on a screen-reader to use the internet. Like many people who are blind or have a vision impairment, she has had ongoing problems using the Coles website to do her shopping since 2008,” PIAC CEO, Edward Santow said.

Pro Bono Australia News reported in October 2014 that after negotiations with Coles failed to bring about a solution, Mesnage brought legal proceedings against the supermarket chain under the Disability Discrimination Act 1992.

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Western values under attack? Not just a European problem

Western values are much in the news at the moment, notable in the newly enhanced relationship between Europe and Turkey. Europe it appears is willing to make significant concessions towards Turkey in a bid to resolve their refugee crisis, particularly as uncontrolled migration has subjected Europeans to increasing fears over security, the unproven ability to integrate newcomers and the financial implications of housing and welfare provisions for upwards of one million people in Germany alone.

The decision to co-opt Turkey as the prime mover in halting people smuggler routes into Greece has always been a curious one, especially as it appears to handover border security for Europeans to a nation with fundamentally different understandings of freedom and notably a core freedom: freedom of speech.

Underlying the new European-Turkey partnership there are deep questions for all western societies. Is this another case of the western world with an obsessive desire to remain open and tolerant having negotiated away the very values which ensure that this is possible? Recent experience with Turkey suggests that Europeans not only made financial concessions, but more importantly “values” concessions including the freedom of expression.

Continue Reading →

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96 people who think section 18C should be reformed

The IPA has long argued that section 18C is a restriction on freedom of speech, and that it should be repealed. And we’re not alone – we’ve compiled a list of 96 prominent individuals and organisations who have publicly argued that section 18C goes too far.

The list even includes many figures on the left that believe section 18C catches conduct that should not be subject to legal sanction, including The Age, David Marr and Jonathan Holmes.

Read the full list for yourself here.

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So-called “Science Guy” open to jail-time for sceptics of a scientific theory

A scene from Explorer: Bill Nye's Global Meltdown. (Photo Credit: NG Studios)

Popular U.S. television personality Bill Nye is the latest public official to show contempt for free speech and intellectual inquiry.

Known for the PBS show he hosted in the 1990s, Bill Nye the Science Guy, Nye is a prominent advocate for action on climate change. And when Climate Depot’s Marc Morano recently asked him what he thought of Robert Kennedy Jr.’s comments that some climate sceptics should be prosecuted as war criminals, Nye seemed supportive. The Washington Times reports:

“We’ll see what happens… In these cases, for me, as a taxpayer and voter, the introduction of this extreme doubt about climate change is affecting my quality of life as a public citizen… So I can see where people are very concerned about this, and they’re pursuing criminal investigations as well as engaging in discussions like this.”

The irony of quashing dissent in the scientific community was apparently lost on Nye, who added “That there is a chilling effect on scientists who are in extreme doubt about climate change, I think that is good.”

The mere fact such a position could be seriously contemplated by a public intellectual, let alone a member of the scientific community — which holds scepticism as a central plank of the scientific method — is a sad reflection on society.

But this won’t come as a surprise to readers of FreedomWatch. Whether through trigger warning and microagression policies in the U.S., the scourge of “no-platforming” in the U.K., free speech is under a sustained attack across the Western world.

Last year alone Australia witnessed Bjørn Lomborg’s acceptance, and subsequent expulsion, from a position at the University of Western Australia — not for being a climate sceptic, but for being insufficiently supportive of the anti-fossil fuel agenda promulgated by the Greens.

Then there is the atrocious behaviour of an academic at Queensland University of Technology, Cindy Prior, who has taken a group of students to court under Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act. The students supposed crime was a few innocuous Facebook posts about being kicked out of an indigenous-only computer lab. These statements included:

“Just got kicked out of the unsigned indigenous computer room. QUT [is] stopping segregation with segregation” [and] “My Student and Amenity fees are going to furbish rooms in the university where inequality reigns supreme? I believe if we have to pay to support these sorts of places, there should at least be more created for general purpose use, but again, how do these sorts of facilities support interaction­ and community within QUT? All this does is encourage separation and inequality.”

I still have enough faith in the Australian legal system to hope this case will be thrown out. But it is still likely to leave these young students with excessive legal bills of more than $200,000.

It’s at this point that I’m reminded of the words of the great NSW upper house MP, Peter Phelps:

“We should not be so surprised that the contemporary science debate has become so debased. At the heart of many scientists — but not all scientists — lies the heart of a totalitarian planner.”

Maybe Phelps’ statement could be extended to other areas of academia, as well.

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Political correctness rampant at Australian universities

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From the Daily Telegraph today, which reported on a damning study authored by Matthew Lesh, into free speech at Australian universities:

RAMPANT political correctness is stifling free speech on Australian university campuses and students’ feelings are being prioritised over academic debate, according to a damning investigation by the Institute of Public Affairs.

Some campuses have banned the use of gender-specific words including “Mr”, “Mrs”, “man” and “sportsmanlike”.

And Western Sydney University has gone even further by outlawing the use of sarcasm.

IPA research fellow Matthew Lesh said the bans have led to many students being accused of sexism and others persecuted for their political views.

… Mr Lesh called for university guidelines and policies restricting intellectual freedom to be abolished…

“It is impossible to develop and discuss ideas in an atmosphere where certain concepts are restricted.” Cases highlighted by the IPA include: Students at Macquarie University will be accused of harassment if they say something regarded as “not welcome”.

Don’t dare say “man the offices” at Newcastle University or commend someone for being “sportsmanlike”, as anything with the word “man” is off limits, along with “Mrs” and “Miss”.

The University of Sydney’s Union has threatened to deregister an 86year-old evangelical society because it requires members to declare their faith in Jesus.

Mr Lesh also said a bid to set up a Men’s Shed group for male students to support each other at Sydney University was blocked for being “too masculine”, but was allowed to go ahead after it appointed a Queer Officer, a Women’s Officer and an Ethno Culture Officer.

The paper’s editorial also had this to say:

Politically correct excesses now dominate thinking at our universities, leading to a call from Institute of Public Affairs research fellow Matthew Lesh to abolish university guidelines and policies restricting intellectual freedom.

“We have policies that now forbid sarcasm and making people feel ‘uncomfortable’,” Lesh told The Daily Telegraph. “We need to have a public debate about this.

“Universities depend on free and open intellectual debate. It is impossible to develop and discuss ideas in an atmosphere where certain concepts are restricted.” But how is a debate over these issues possible given so many severe limitations?

The moment debate participants feel awkward or unwelcome, or if a point is made that may contain dangerous levels of sarcasm, the whole debate would be called off.

We need a debate on a better name for our over-protective institutes of tertiary learning. Maybe kinderversities?

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Andrew Hastie on freedom of speech and freedom of conscience

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An important article appeared in last week’s The Sunday Times. It was written by Andrew Hastie, the Liberal member of parliament for Canning in Western Australia. Andrew is an IPA member, as is Senator Dean Smith who Andrew mentions in the article.

Andrew’s piece is a forceful defence of freedom of speech and freedom of conscience. His key argument is about the importance of civility in public discussion. This is a vital point. And it’s particularly relevant to Australia at a time where we are engaged in some very significant public policy debates. Key debates include the proposed referendum to recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in the Australian Constitution, the upcoming plebiscite on same sex marriage and, most recently, legitimate questions raised about the Safe Schools program. In the context of these important discussions, it’s essential to have respect for those who hold a different point of view.

There is a risk of Australia developing a culture where debates are won, not by argument, and reason, and evidence, but by those who are most effective at silencing their opponents. I worry for America, where such a culture is already taking hold, particularly on college campuses. We must push back against this culture, and defend the importance of robust and open debate – as Andrew has done.

Here are my favourite parts of Andrew’s article:

At the heart of bullying is the exercise of power for the purpose of hurting, excluding and degrading others. We all know that bullying for race, sexual preference, religious belief, gender, creed or disability is unacceptable and morally wrong.

Unfortunately this misuse of power is not confined to the schoolyard. Over the past decade, we have seen the rise of bullying in our public discourse. Social media attacks, name-calling, and aggressive gestures are commonplace from all sides of the political divide. We Australians think of ourselves as accepting, tolerant and democratic, yet our spirit of liberty seems to be waning.

You only need to think of UWA’s flip-flop on appointing climate scientist Bjorn Lomborg after a ‘strong and emotional reaction’ by university staff and students who disagreed with his academic position.

Lomborg’s crime was to be the author of the ‘The Skeptical Environmentalist’ in which he challenges the prevailing academic wisdom that the global environment is getting progressively worse. Never mind that his study is rigorously footnoted and transparent in source work.

Abraham Lincoln famously said, “Let the people be aware of the facts and the country will be calm”. It is little wonder calmness is such a rarity these days when experts are being silenced by bullish mobs.

Freedom of speech must be nonnegotiable. Benjamin Franklin once said that “whoever would overthrow the liberty of a nation must begin by subduing the freeness of speech”. Today this freedom is under threat from bullies who would silence those who disagree with them.

Much of today’s toxic discourse flows from our instinct to disbelieve any view opposed to our own, reflexively ruling out perspectives without reason. This belief devastates the possibility of intelligent, rational discussion and entrenches opposing sides of the political spectrum, leaving little room for dialogue.

… George Orwell foresaw where the abandonment of reason can lead society: to a world devoid of compassion and empathy for those who disagree with us. All that is left is raw power.

As Orwell wrote, without reason and charity in our public debate there will be nothing left but “the thrill of victory, the sensation of trampling on an enemy who is helpless. If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face — forever.”

… We must debate this [the Safe Schools program] and all issues rigorously with civility, tender hearts and a commitment to respect each other and the final outcome.

Read the full piece here.

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Racial discrimination laws now used to punish anti-racist sentiment

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As reported yesterday, QUT academic Cindy Prior is seeking nearly $250,000 as part of a section 18C complaint against students and other staff at the university. My colleague Simon Breheny was published in The Australian today, on what this all means:

The case is a sad indictment on the state of free and open debate in Australia. In my opinion, the comments in question would offend only a hypersensitive individual, and none of them are directed at Prior’s particular “race, colour, or national or ethnic origin” – the basis of offence required by the Racial Discrimination Act. Prior isn’t named, and the comments don’t seem to exhibit any form of bigotry or racial intolerance.

So ridiculous is the application of Australian racial vilification laws that they can now be used to punish anti-racist sentiment. The comments above are an endorsement of the idea that students at the university should all be treated equally – no matter their race.

But 18C is now used as a gag to any debate about race and ethnicity.

Continue reading here.

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An imbalance in NSW defamation laws

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A very interesting pair of news items in today’s Australian. First, Sharri Markson reports that ICAC’s lawyer, Geoffrey Watson, has threatened to sue one of his critics for defamation:

Mr Watson, the Independent Commission Against Corruption’s senior counsel assisting, sent a legal letter to [radio host Alan] Jones on December 16 demanding he pull down from the 2GB website an interview where he describes the senior counsel as “this ego-tripping Geoffrey Watson” and says recent ICAC investigations are “one of the most disgraceful chapters in public administration”.

On another page, we learn that ICAC has cleared two “top targets” of charges of corruption, including Liberal senator Arthur Sinodinos. His parliamentary career has been under a cloud since he was embroiled in a major corruption inquiry in 2014.

Note the incongruity: While Jones is under threat of legal action for his statements regarding Watson and ICAC, Watson and ICAC remain at liberty to tarnish reputations, with scant regard to the truth.

The state government won’t abolish the ICAC (as it should), but it should be prepared to either remove ICAC’s exemption from state defamation laws, or at least create some balance by exempting ICAC’s critics from those same laws. Either of these options may be harmful to public policy, or a messy fix (as Sinclair Davidson identifies at the Catallaxy Files here), but would be a vast improvement on a flawed law.


UPDATE

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For Triggs, keeping section 18C is a win for freedom

From Gillian Triggs in The Conversation today:

One of Australia’s most effective safeguards of human rights is the cultural expectation that freedoms will be protected. Most Australians are unlikely to be able to describe the doctrine of the separation of powers. But they’re quick to assert their liberties under the rubric of a “fair go” – a phrase that’s as close to a bill of rights as Australia is likely to get.

This cultural expectation is what keeps our freedoms alive today – as was illustrated by the overwhelming community response to Operation Fortitude. And to preserve Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act when the Abbott government proposed stripping out legislative provisions protecting ethnic groups from hate speech.

Got that? Community opposition to maintaining a law which makes it unlawful to offend or insult another person was an example of keeping our “freedoms alive”.

Dreadful to think our taxpayer-funded Human Rights Commission President has such a weak grasp on human rights, such as freedom of speech.

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