Freedom of Speech for Unpopular People
Our freedom of speech is being eroded on several fronts. Broad and ill-conceived legislation has been passed in both state and federal parliaments that is fundamentally incompatible with the right to speak your mind. This is coinciding with extra-legal attacks on our rights, including the use of violence and intimidation. While these attacks often generate significant debate about freedom of speech when they involve violence or celebrities, the denial of basic human rights to unpopular political agitators often goes unnoticed. Yet it is the unpopular, crazy and ignorant people whose rights are most at risk. They are the singing canaries whose silence should warn us of toxic air. As well as undermining our own freedom, making these people genuine martyrs elevates their status by giving them a legitimacy that their views would otherwise not afford.
A Victorian man has been charged under state legislation that makes it illegal to “knowingly engage in conduct with the intention of inciting serious contempt for, or revulsion or severe ridicule” of people based on their religion or religious activities. Consider the obscure wording of this legislation. The worst possible outcome envisaged is ridicule and contempt, not violence. Unlike libel and slander, the legislation does not consider the possibility that a person’s religious views deserve ridicule and contempt. Nor does it require the guilty party to actually ridicule anyone. It does not even require the guilty party to incite ridicule. Rather, the legislation makes it illegal to have an intention of inciting contempt or ridicule while “engaging in conduct”. This is about as far removed from actually doing something wrong as it is possible to get.
The man’s name is Blair Cottrel. His ‘crime’ was to make a beheading video as a way of protesting a new Mosque in Bendigo. He has also been charged with defacing a footpath and garden wall while making the video. This crime was committed on October 4, 2015. He appeared in court on March 6 and May 3, 2017 and is due to reappear on September 4, 2017. The legislation was passed by Victorian Parliament in 2001 (Racial and Religious Tolerance Act, Part4, Section 25, the “Offence of serious religious vilification”).
Court appearances by Cottrel are often accompanied by protests from his supporters, as well as counter-protests from various “antifa” (anti fascist) groups. These groups often explicitly use violence and intimidation to disrupt legitimate protests. They are effectively the militant arm of the political correctness movement. After Cottrel’s court appearance in March, Debbie Brennan, a spokeswoman for Campaign Against Racism and Facism, who organised the counter-protest, was quoted in the media as saying "We know the importance of exercising our free speech to stop their hate speech." Such clumsy attempts to redefine freedom of speech are common among supporters of this legislation.
There has been significant media coverage of the federal Racial Discrimination Act of 1975. In particular, section 18c, added in 1995, makes it illegal to “to offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate” people based on “race, colour or national or ethnic origin”. It repeatedly hit the front page after Andrew Bolt was found to have violated the act in 2011. Later, a cartoon by Bill Leak triggered an investigation, until the complaint was withdrawn. Leak died shortly after of a heart attack, after citing the enourmous stress of facing a protracted legal battle over a cartoon. These two cases rightly triggered much public and parliamentary debate about freedom of speech. However, as with Blair Cottrel, the worst legal excesses occurred against the most politically unpopular people. In 2000, Gerald Fredrick Töben was found guilty of violating section 18c by denying the holocaust. Töben refused to comply with court orders and continued denying the holocaust online. He was eventually jailed for what amounts to expressing an incorrect opinion about history.
Labor's Anne Aly, Australia's first female federal Muslim MP, has proposed broadening the definition of race for the purpose of section 18c to include religion. Labor's Robin Scott has threatened to impose even stricter limitations on the right of Victorians to criticise religion if the federal government succeeds in removing the absurdly broad provisions in section 18c.
Education bureaucrats in the State of QLD have started targeting primary school children who talk about Jesus, exchange Christmas cards that mention the birth of Jesus, or encourage Christianity.
By far the greatest threat to freedom of speech comes from militant Islam. Where Australian journalists have faced fines and being forced to apologise, as well as countless hours sitting through the plodding bureaucracy of the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission, Islamic extremists have made it clear that no-one in the world is safe from them. Film makers, cartoonists and authors face a very real threat of murder for depicting or mocking the prophet Muhammad. This has already had a significant chilling effect on free speech globally.
However, the direct assault on freedom of speech does not just come from Islam’s fringe. There is broad support among the world’s 1.4 billion Muslims for blasphemy legislation, so it is unlikely that Muslim nations will adopt freedom of speech or other fundamental human rights any time soon. In fact, Muslim nations are trying to strip the rights and freedoms of everyone. For example, in March 2008, the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), a group of 57 Muslim nations, tried to get the United Nations to make it illegal to criticise Islam. Luckily, they failed.
In March 2009, a United Nations forum passed a resolution condemning "defamation of religion" as a human rights violation, despite wide concerns that it could be used to justify curbs on free speech in Muslim countries. The U.N. Human Rights Council adopted the non-binding text, proposed by Pakistan on behalf of Islamic states.