Freedom of speech - a two-edged sword
Three interesting things happened this week in relation to freedom of speech:
- Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act - proposed changes rejected
- Ayaan Hirsi Ali - anti-Islam activist's proposed tour of Australia cancelled
- Bassem Tamimi - Palestinian activist's proposed tour of Australia cancelled
The first issue was the rejection by the Senate of proposed changes to Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act(1).
Section 18C reads(2):
(1) It is unlawful for a person to do an act, otherwise than in private, if:
(a) the act is reasonably likely, in all the circumstances, to offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate another person or a group of people; and
(b) the act is done because of the race, colour or national or ethnic origin of the other person or of some or all of the people in the group.
Note: Subsection (1) makes certain acts unlawful. Section 46P of the Australian Human Rights Commission Act 1986 allows people to make complaints to the Australian Human Rights Commission about unlawful acts. However, an unlawful act is not necessarily a criminal offence. Section 26 says that this Act does not make it an offence to do an act that is unlawful because of this Part, unless Part IV expressly says that the act is an offence.
(2) For the purposes of subsection (1), an act is taken not to be done in private if it:
(a) causes words, sounds, images or writing to be communicated to the public; or
(b) is done in a public place; or
(c) is done in the sight or hearing of people who are in a public place.
(3) In this section:
"public place " includes any place to which the public have access as of right or by invitation, whether express or implied and whether or not a charge is made for admission to the place.
The government, under pressure from extreme right wing activists, had attempted to change the wording, 'offend, insult, humiliate', to simply 'harass'.
It should be noted, that 18C applies to speech in public, not in private. So what is said around the BBQ with your mates is not an offence under 18C. Similarly, even if it is said in public, there are exemptions to 18C which generally covers any public speech that is done 'reasonably and in good faith':
Section 18C does not render unlawful anything said or done reasonably and in good faith:
(a) in the performance, exhibition or distribution of an artistic work; or
(b) in the course of any statement, publication, discussion or debate made or held for any genuine academic, artistic or scientific purpose or any other genuine purpose in the public interest; or
(c) in making or publishing:
(i) a fair and accurate report of any event or matter of public interest; or
(ii) a fair comment on any event or matter of public interest if the comment is an expression of a genuine belief held by the person making the comment.
The Senate rejected the proposed changes when Labor, the Greens and cross-benchers such as Nick Xenophon voted against it.
The extreme right were up in arms and vowed to fight on for 'freedom of speech'.
This roughly translates as the right to 'offend, insult and humiliate'. What is that these people want to say that they can't say already? It boils down to people wanting the right to disrespect others. In reality, they already have this right.
Most of the issues that the opponents of 18C have are not that people are stopping them from saying anything, but that people call them out on it. It seems that they want the right to insult, offend and humiliate, but don't want others to have the right to respond. This is an attack on free speech in itself.
The second issue was the proposed visit to Australia by former Muslim, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the poster-child of the anti-Islam brigade.
HirsiAli was a Somalian refugee who has been vocal on issues such as female genital mutilation and forced marriages. Not too many people have an issue with this. However, Ali gives voice to Islamophobia by claiming that it is Islam itself that is responsible for terrorism and violence within the Muslim world. She has stated that Islam is a 'destructive, nihilistic cult of death'(3).
A number of people criticised her visit, but very few called for her to be banned. Muslim women made a video stating that Ali did not speak for them. However, they weren't requesting her tour be cancelled. They were calling her out for hate speech and bigotry that has been feeding the hate-mongering by Islamophobes. Ironically, this hate-mongering has manifested itself in violence against Muslims by people who claim that Islam is inherently violent.
Nonetheless, Ali cancelled the tour herself, citing organisational and security concerns, even though authorities stated that they had no knowledge of any security threat to her on the tour(4).
This further fed the paranoia of the anti-Islam groups who then claimed this was an attack on free speech by Muslims and Australia's left-wing activists.
The third issue was the less publicised visit to Australia by Palestinian activist, Bassem Tamimi, who was being brought to Australia by the Australian Friends of Palestine Association and other Palestine advocacy groups.
Hours after issuing Tamimi's visa, Immigration Minister Peter Dutton revoked it. The Immigration Department stated, 'The Department recently became aware of information that indicates there is a risk that members of the public will react adversely to Mr Tamimi’s presence in Australia regarding his views of the ongoing political tensions in the Middle East'(5)
Interesting that it was the fear of violence from people opposed to Tamimi's message in support of Palestine that resulted in the visa being cancelled. It was only a few weeks ago that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited Australia and was met by peaceful protests from pro-Palestine groups. Apparently, the government doesn't have as much trust in either the anti-Palestine or pro-Israel/Zionist groups.
So with the government shutting down Bassem Tamimi's freedom of speech in support of Palestine, where is the outrage from those who oppose 18C? Where is the outrage against the stifling of Tamimi's freedom of speech, from those who supported Hirsi Ali's visit to Australia in the name of freedom of speech?
It seems that freedom of speech in Australia is a rather ethereal concept, one that is somewhat tenuous in its application. Those who claim to oppose 18C in the name of freedom of speech are using this position to attack anyone who dares challenge their hate speech.
American civil rights campaigner, Alan Dershowitz stated, 'Freedom of speech means freedom for those who you despise, and freedom to express the most despicable views. It also means that the government cannot pick and choose which expressions to authorize and which to prevent'.
This week the government did pick and choose which expressions to authorise and which to prevent. They didn't stop Hirsi Ali but did stop Bassem Tamimi.
Most people want freedom of speech, however, they aren't so happy with freedom of retort. And it is this freedom of retort that has opponents of 18C believing that they are victims in some sort of conspiracy to shut down their freedom of speech.
The extreme right does raise some valid issues regarding terrorism for instance, however, banning Islam, as some of them want to do, will only cause greater fracturing of relations between Muslims and non-Muslims, and will destroy any trust that the Muslim community has in the government. It will make identifying radicals harder, given that it is often Muslims who report radicals within their own community.
Hirsi Ali raises valid points around FGM and forced marriage. The lies that she then goes on to spread cannot be addressed if her views are forced underground. Better for these distortions to be brought to the light where they can be exposed for the lies that they are, as we saw in the campaign by Muslim women that Ali doesn't speak for them.
Bassem Tamimi makes valid points around Israel's oppression of Palestine, exposing the decades of violations of human rights and UN resolutions. These issues need to be addressed, not shut down by those who refuse to acknowledge Israel's crimes against humanity.
Freedom of speech is important in order to flesh out valid issues. As George Washington said, 'If the freedom of speech is taken away then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter'.
If issues are not discussed and debated, then people will continue on in their own ignorance and in same cases, acting out their hate through violent actions as we see by both Islamist extremists and Western Right-wing extremists, many of whom are Christian.
1. ABC News, Ashlynne McGee, '18C: Proposed changes to Racial Discrimination Act defeated in Senate', 31 March 2017, http://www.abc.net.au/news/2017-03-30/18c-racial-discrimination-act-changes-defeated-in-senate/8402792. Accessed 9 April 2017.
2. Racial Discrimination Act 1975 (Cth), http://www.austlii.edu.au/au/legis/cth/consol_act/rda1975202/. Accessed 9 April 2017.
3. Southern Poverty Law Centre, 'A Journalist's Manual: Field Guide to Anti-Muslim Extremists', https://www.splcenter.org/20161025/journalists-manual-field-guide-anti-muslim-extremists#ali. Accessed 9 April 2017.
3. Sydney Morning Herald, Jacqueline Maley, 'Why did Ayaan Hirsi Ali really cancel her Australian speaking tour', 8 April 2017, http://www.smh.com.au/comment/why-did-ayaan-hirsi-ali-really-cancel-her-australian-speaking-tour-20170406-gvf31i.html. Accessed 9 April 2017.
4. The Guardian, Christopher Knaus, 'Palestinian activist's Australian visa cancelled on eve of speaking tour', 8 April 2017, https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2017/apr/08/palestinian-activists-australian-visa-cancelled-on-eve-of-speaking-tour. Accessed 9 April 2017.
5. ABC News, Jade MacMillan, 'Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu's Australian visit slammed by 1,000 protesters', 23 February 2017, http://www.abc.net.au/news/2017-02-23/palestinian-protesters-march-against-benjamin-netanyahu/8298538. Accessed 9 April 2017.