Freedom of speech

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

o-GAVEl

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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Free speech and open debate under threat from anti-discrimination laws

Archbishop Julian Porteous, the subject of a complaint to the Tasmanian Anti-Discrimination Commissioner

It is deeply disturbing that a Catholic archbishop is being dragged to an anti-discrimination authority for simply expressing a traditional view on the subject that until quite recently was shared by both the major political parties as well as a large segment of the population. This exposes religious organisations to attack from outsiders and leaves their practices and beliefs unguarded.

If religious organisations can be punished for simply expressing their traditional views on marriage, family and a child’s right to a father and mother, then I wonder what else they and their followers might be punished for once same-sex marriage is legalised in Australia.

Before a plebiscite on same-sex marriage can even take place in this country, it is necessary to address the intolerable impact that anti-discrimination laws are having on free speech. As a society we really need to ask ourselves if we should undermine the rights of one group in order to protect or promote the interests of another.

A real democracy – and we must never forget this – requires that controversial issues will be resolved by the people only after a truly open and robust debate has taken place.

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A timeless piece on freedom of expression on campus

Benno C. Schmidt Jr

Benno C. Schmidt Jr

The Wall Street Journal‘s “Notable & Quotable” section republished this great piece ($) by Benno Schmidt this week, on attitudes towards freedom of expression on campus. Despite being published almost 15 years ago, every word of it still applies today:

On many campuses, perhaps most, there is little resistance to growing pressure to suppress and to punish, rather than to answer, speech that offends notions of civility and community. These campuses are heedless of the oldest lesson in the history of freedom, which is that offensive, erroneous and obnoxious speech is the price of liberty. Values of civility, mutual respect and harmony are rightly prized within the university. But these values must be fostered by teaching and by example, and defended by expression. When the goals of harmony collide with freedom of expression, freedom must be the paramount obligation of an academic community.

Much expression that is free may deserve our contempt. We may well be moved to exercise our own freedom to counter it or to ignore it. But universities cannot censor or suppress speech, no matter how obnoxious in content, without violating their justification for existence. Liberal education presupposes that a liberated mind will strive for the courage and composure to face ideas that are fraught with evil, and to answer them. To stifle expression because it is obnoxious, erroneous, embarrassing, not instrumental to some political or ideological end is—quite apart from the invasion of the rights of others—a disastrous reflection on the idea of the university.

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Email: Mark Steyn touring Australia with the IPA

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Mark Steyn is one of the world’s strongest advocates for liberty, free speech and the values of our democracy, and his site – SteynOnline – is an oasis in a desert of political correctness.

It has never been more important to stand up for freedom and the values of free society than it is today. That is why the IPA is so delighted to be bringing Mark, one of the world’s most eloquent defenders of liberty, to Australia in February 2016.

You can book your place at one of the events at http://rsvp.ipa.org.au/marksteyn/events.

Continue Reading →

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EXCLUSIVE: Head of the Press Council joins forces with GetUp!

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Professor David Weisbrot

The Australian Press Council “is responsible for promoting good standards of media practice, community access to information of public interest, and freedom of expression through the media.”

The Press Council holds itself out as an organisation dedicated to high standards of integrity, and as an independent arbiter of complaints relating to media in Australia.

So it’s of great concern to see that the head of the Press Council, David Weisbrot, has agreed to be a board member of a new activist litigation fund being established by the left-wing advocacy group GetUp!

This is more than a general problem about the independence of the Press Council. GetUp! has run a series of campaigns which demonstrate how inappropriate it is for the Press Council to join up with it.

Here are three of the most recent examples:

Continue Reading →

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Tongue tied by the “big stick” of the law

Interesting article by Nicola Berkovic in the Weekend Australian today, featuring recent instances of anti-discrimination laws being used to chill speech across Australia. It is well worth reading ($).

My colleague Simon Breheny was also quoted in relation to the Arhcbishop Porteous case in Tasmania:

The IPA’s Simon Breheny believes section 17 of Tasmania’s Anti-Discrimination Act sets an “unreasonably low threshold” for unlawful conduct and should be amended. He says the legitimacy of the plebiscite result will rely on the freedom of Australian citizens to voice their opinions.

“It is too easy to ‘offend’, ‘humiliate’, ‘insult’ or ‘ridicule’ a person in the course of robust debate,” he says.

“These words should be removed to ensure that a free discussion can take place.”

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See what this state MP had to say about FreedomWatch in parliament

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Peter Katsambanis MLC

FreedomWatch readers may be interested to read this speech from WA state MP Peter Katsambanis, who spoke in the Legislative Council yesterday afternoon to a motion in support of free speech. In the course of his speech, Katsambanis made this interesting reference:

[L]ast week I noticed something on the FreedomWatch website that is run by the Institute of Public Affairs Australia of which I am proud member. It is a great freedom fighter for freedom of speech in particular.

Published on that FreedomWatch site were the results of a global survey from Pew Research Center. It indicated that Australians have strong support for free speech and free expression. Australia is ranked seventh out of 38 countries that were polled on their attitudes to freedom of expression…

It found that 95 per cent of Australians supported criticism of government policies, 56 per cent supported statements that are offensive to minority groups and, interestingly, 62 per cent of Australians supporting freedom of expression even when that expression led to statements that were offensive to their own religion or beliefs, because Australians value the opportunity to debate rather than to be shut down. They value the opportunity to have a proper public discourse rather than to hound away people with threats, intimidation and criticism.

Well done to the Institute of Public Affairs for continuing to highlight those figures.

See his whole speech on page 18-19 of Hansard, here.

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Judges are not perfect

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Michael Sexton SC

Michael Sexton SC makes a good point ($) in The Australian today:

…the Tasmanian legislation — and similar legislation in some of the other states and territories — poses real problems on its face for churches and other religious groups.

To take an example, as anyone who has read Brideshead Revisited will recall, it is Catholic teaching that unmarried heterosexual couples are “living in sin” and so doomed to the eternal fires of hell.

Why is it not open to such a couple to complain that they are offended and insulted by church publications to this effect because those publications are made on the basis of their relationship status?

It then would be up to the church to argue that a reasonable person would not have this reaction but that decision might depend very much on the personal views of the Anti-Discrimination Commissioner.

This last paragraph is an important point, and it’s one that tends to be missed by lawyers. Judges are not automatons. Judges are people that bring their own values to bear on legal decisions they are required to make. They are not infallible, and personal biases often play a role.

The correct response is to ensure that contentious decisions about thoughts, ideas, and the limits of public debate are not left to judges, but are debated freely by individual citizens.

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