Civil liberties

Tasmanian upper house to debate anti-discrimination amendments

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Tasmanian Education Minister Jeremy Rockliff

The Legislative Council of Tasmania will today debate amendments to possibly the most restrictive anti-discrimination laws in the country.

The laws in question concern the rights of religious schools to selectively admit students based on their religious belief.

This is important for religious schools. Being compelled to admit students who do not share their faith weakens the character of the school, and diminishes their ability to immerse their students in a religious education expected from parents.

Under the current Anti-Discrimination Act 1998, sections 55A and 55B require faith-based schools to request permission from the state Andi-Discrimination Commissioner to give preference in enrolments to students who share the faith of the school. Most schools are unable to meet the requirements, and those that could are discouraged by the regulatory burden.

Last month, education minister Jeremy Rockliff introduced the Anti-Discrimination Amendment Bill 2015, which replaces the burdensome sections 55A and 55B with 51A, a general exemption for religious school. This will bring the law more in line with all other Australian jurisdictions.

Having your cake and eating it too

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Earlier this month, a Canadian gay couple demanded a refund from a jewellery store that had been helping the couple design rings for their engagement. They did so after discovering that the owners of the store had displayed a sign that promoted the traditional conception of marriage between a man and a woman. The store has agreed to refund the deposit paid by the couple.

It’s interesting to reflect on this situation given the recent string of anti-discrimination cases against businesses that have refused to serve gay customers. The case of the Canadian jewellery store is the same issue in reverse. In this instance there was no refusal of service, there was refusal of purchase. But there is no law to deal with this unambiguous case of religious discrimination; no tribunal to which the business owners can take the customer for refusing to buy their products.

Nor should there be. That would be absurd. And there’s the rub: the absurdity is directly proportionate to the absurdity of allowing customers to take businesses to court over refusal of service. Voluntary economic exchange is a two-way street. Both the buyer and seller are entitled to take any factor they like into account in deciding whether to engage in the exchange, including the political and religious beliefs of the individuals with whom they are seeking to engage in trade.

The Canadian couple who demanded a refund are entitled to do so. But neither the jeweller nor the customer should be able to coerce the other to engage in economic exchange. It really is that simple.

NSA ‘reform’ is not what it seems

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Yesterday, the US House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly to pass the USA Freedom Act, with 338 votes in favour and 88 against.

Advocates of the bill claim it ends the NSA’s bulk collection of metadata, which has become notorious since its existence was first revealed by Edward Snowden in 2013.

Great! So this is a win for freedom and a blow to the surveillance state, right?

Well no, actually it’s not.

Far from being a blow to the surveillance state, this ‘reform’ actually serves to further entrench government surveillance.

Attached to the USA Freedom Act is a provision which extends section 215 of the USA Patriot Act—the legal justification of mass surveillance—which is set to expire on the 1st of June.

Section 215 has already been re-authorized multiple times, usually with little opposition. However, since the Snowden revelations, a bipartisan and increasingly influential coalition has emerged in opposition to mass government surveillance. It is now unlikely that re-authorization of section 215 would pass if put forward in a clean bill.

This is a problem for advocates of mass surveillance. If section 215 isn’t renewed then the legal justification for the surveillance state will disappear.

In fact, this legal justification is already in peril, after a US appeals court last week found section 215 does not allow the government to indiscriminately collect data on all Americans.

This situation has created an interesting dynamic.

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Internet censorship is, in fact, a human rights problem

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One of the peculiar things about the government’s copyright infringement legislation – which would give courts the power to order internet service providers to censor foreign websites – is that the Attorney General’s Department has been claiming that this in fact would be positive for human rights.

The Explanatory Memorandum of the Copyright Amendment (Online Infringement) Bill 2015 says the bill “facilitates human rights because it promotes rights”. The latter rights are property rights.

As I’ve argued in the past this isn’t all that sensible: the government has done nothing to show that introducing an internet filter will meaningfully protect property rights or, more importantly in the case of intellectual property, encourage the development of new creative works.

So it is good to see the parliament’s Join Committee on Human Rights raise similar issues in a report released yesterday:

[I]t is likely that the granting of injunctions may adversely affect internet users who are legally accessing authorised data via the online locations concerned – such as smaller content producers who use torrenting websites as a legitimate platform for distribution. An injunction could also mean that some material, which has been legally shared on the website, is no longer accessible to members of the general public, thereby limiting their right to receive information.

In addressing the question of whether website blocking is “proportionate” to the aim of reducing copyright infringement, the committee also notes that the government has offered little argument to suggest that more direct means of tackling infringement would not be effective – especially considering such direct means might not constitute wholesale an internet filter.

It’s good to see – in a debate characterised by so much obfuscation and empty rhetoric – some recognition in parliament of the actual policy trade-offs at stake here, let alone a recognition of the importance of freedom of speech online.

Libertarian activist from the Middle East prevented from entering the country

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A number of IPA staff, myself included, are speaking at the 3rd Australian Libertarian Society Friedman Conference this Saturday and Sunday. One person who will not be speaking at the conference is “Milton”.

Milton is the pseudonym of a libertarian from a Middle Eastern country that we are not naming because, well, it is not totally safe to be a libertarian in this particular Middle Eastern country. Milton was scheduled to speak at the conference on the weekend but the Immigration Department has denied him a visa to enter the country.

New Matilda has the story here. We’ve argued in the past about the freedom of speech significance of visa restrictions (on the Geert Wilders case here and here, and on the Malaysian political activist Haris Ibrahim here). Restrictions on entering the country have long been used as deliberate constraints on free speech, as in the famous Kisch episode under the Lyons government.

The Immigration Department says the visa was denied because he was unmarried, had not travelled to a developed country before, and therefore was considered a risk that he might try to stay in the country. There is no suggestion that there were any political considerations in the visa denial.

But the upshot is that a libertarian activist from one of the world’s most oppressive countries is unable to visit what is supposed to be one of the world’s freest countries to share their struggle for liberty. This is embarrassing.

Religious liberty and the secular state: the Canadian approach

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The Supreme Court of Canada in Ottawa.

A recent case in the Canada’s highest court has unanimously rejected an attempt by a provincial government to force a private schools to teach from a secular perspective.

Here are some of the most important excepts from the judgment:

Freedom of religion means that no one can be forced to adhere to or refrain from a particular set of religious beliefs. This includes both the individual and collective aspects of religious belief… The context in this case is state regulation of religious schools. This raises the question of how to balance robust protection for the values underlying religious freedom with the values of a secular state. The state has a legitimate interest in ensuring that students in all schools are capable, as adults, of conducting themselves with openness and respect as they confront cultural and religious differences… But a secular state does not — and cannot — interfere with the beliefs or practices of a religious group unless they conflict with or harm overriding public interests. Nor can a secular state support or prefer the practices of one group over another. The pursuit of secular values means respecting the right to hold and manifest different religious beliefs. A secular state respects religious differences, it does not seek to extinguish them.

Loyola is a private Catholic institution. The collective aspects of religious freedom — in this case, the collective manifestation and transmission of Catholic beliefs — are a crucial part of its claim. The Minister’s decision requires Loyola to teach Catholicism, the very faith that animates its character, from a neutral perspective. Although the state’s purpose is secular, this amounts to requiring a Catholic institution to speak about its own religion in terms defined by the state rather than by its own understanding. This demonstrably interferes with the manner in which the members of an institution formed for the purpose of transmitting Catholicism can teach and learn about the Catholic faith. It also undermines the liberty of the members of the community who have chosen to give effect to the collective dimension of their religious beliefs by participating in a denominational school.

Iran: A leader in women’s rights?

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Hassan Rouhani (President of Iran) with the Secretary-General of the UN, Ban Ki-moon (September 2013)

In his Message on the 8th March marking International Women’s Day 2015 the UN Secretary General emphasised that this is ‘a vital year for advancing the cause of women’s human rights’. If the election this month of Iran to the Executive Board of UN Women is any indication, then this isn’t going particularly well.

You read that correctly. Iran – which recently ranked 137 out of 142 countries in the 2014 World Economic Forum Global Gender Gap Index – was elected by a two-thirds majority of the UN Economic & Social Council to the Executive Board of UN Women, the body created to lead and coordinate the UN system’s work on gender equality and the empowerment of women. Just over a year ago the UN Secretary-General reported that women in Iran ‘are subject to discrimination, entrenched both in law and practice’. Only eight months ago, the Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in Iran reported to the UN General Assembly that the human rights situation there ‘remains of concern’, warning specifically of draft laws that ‘markedly compound discrimination against women by further eroding their protection from forced marriage and rights to education, work and equal wages’.

The very fact that the Special Rapporteur is felt by UN Member States to be necessary should itself suggest that Iran is not a suitable candidate for any UN human rights body. This is not, however, the only recent example of Iran being elected to a key women’s rights organisation. It follows on from their re-election last April to the Commission on the Status of Women.

It is also not an isolated example of a nation with a questionable human rights track record being elected to key UN human rights bodies. Other current Board members of UN Women include countries such as Saudi Arabia (the only country in the world that prohibits women from driving) and Turkey (whose President told a women’s conference last year that it is ‘against nature’ to put men and women on an equal footing)

It is true that an argument can certainly be made for positive engagement. That is, isolating countries like Iran may ultimately prove counter-productive whereas actually engaging with them may encourage improved human rights outcomes. There is, however, a significant difference between cautious engagement and legitimizing a regime that systematically treats women as second-class citizens.  The election of Iran to UN Women certainly feels more like the latter.

Peter Walsh on free speech and legal parasites

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Nick Cater’s piece from yesterday (posted on FreedomWatch here) makes the point that the late Peter Walsh was not just a passionate supporter of deregulation and economic liberty, but was particularly critical of the authoritarianism that swept the Labor Party.

In that light, Walsh’s Australian Financial Review columns, published after he left parliament in 1993, make for some entertaining, and compelling, reading.

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Michael Gove in defence of Christianity

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On this Good Friday, I found particular enjoyment in reading Michael Gove’s article in The Spectator.

In his defence of Christianity, the Chief Whip of the British government outlined how it emphasises the importance and intrinsic value of the individual, and why it has been essential in movements to defend human liberty:

Christianity encourages us to see that, while all of us are prey to weakness, there is a potential for good in everyone. Every individual is precious. Christianity encourages us to look beyond tribe and tradition to celebrate our common humanity. And at every stage in human history when tyrants and dictators have attempted to set individuals against one another, it has been Christians who have shielded the vulnerable from oppression. It was Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Christian-inspired White Rose movement that led the internal opposition to Hitler’s rule. It was the moral witness of the Catholic church in Poland that helped erode Communism’s authority in the 1980s.

You can read the rest of Gove’s article here.

Exclusion zone proposals show fundamental misunderstanding of freedom

candelight-vigil-abortionRecent proposals from the Greens in the ACT show just how little the party understands about human rights.

The sole Greens member of the Legislative Assembly, David Rattenbury, called for “exclusion zones” around Canberran abortion clinics, in order to thwart those that would protest.

The approach of the ACT Greens is a concerning restriction on peaceful activities. The proposal would emulate Tasmania’s Reproductive Health (Access to Terminations) Act 2013, which criminalises protests which are able to be seen or heard by a person within a 150 metre “access zone”.

It mirrors 100 metre exclusion zones proposals from the Australian Sex Party in Victoria, earlier this year. Both the Greens and the Sex Party seem to believe that even conduct involving praying quietly and lighting candles should be prohibited. Up to 150 metres away.

Rattenbury illustrated this when he said:

This is not a freedom-of-speech issue; this is an issue of safe and accessible healthcare.

Women have the legal right to medical privacy and the human right to make choices about their own health without interference or harassment.

The anti-free speech attitude is shared by Women’s Centre for Health Matters health promotion officer Angela Carnovale, who said that protesters rights to protest should not infringe on the spurious right to “accessible healthcare” by “pursuing conversations in other forums where those conversations can be had”.

Unfortunately, Carnovale was not so generous as to suggest which locations the government should authorise for the holding of such conversations.