Attacks on free speech

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Sunday Tasmanian 11th November, 2012

The Tasmanian Government is the latest to join the growing anti-free speech movement.

The most recent attack comes in the form of the State Government's proposed amendments to Tasmania's anti-discrimination laws.

Some of the proposed changes in the Bill before State Parliament this week will have a crippling effect on Tasmanians' freedom to express their opinions in workplaces, businesses and even at local sporting clubs.

Currently, it's unlawful to "offend, humiliate, intimidate, insult or ridicule" someone based on six traits listed in the Act. The Tasmanian Government wants to add 16 new traits to that list.

Some of the characteristics being added include political affiliation, religious belief and race.

This is ridiculous.

Democracy can only be effective when we have the freedom to offend others.

How else can we debate each other and, in the end, ensure that worthy ideas spread?
Taking topics of conversation off the table only results in bad ideas thriving in secret, and never allows controversial but important ideas to grow.

If these changes are passed, Tasmania's anti-discrimination laws will become the most onerous in the country - no other state has as many grounds on which individuals are able to sue each other for discriminatory unlawful conduct.

And although Tasmania will go further down this path than any other jurisdiction, it is not the first to move in this general direction.

Federal racial discrimination laws prohibit offensive behaviour if it is directed at the race of an individual or group. These laws were infamously used last year to silence Andrew Bolt. The popular journalist was hauled before the courts and forced to publish "correction notices" in the name of "public vindication". It's disturbing to hear that kind of language used by courts in a liberal democracy.

And all Bolt did was publish two opinion pieces on the issue of racial policy in Australia.

Restricting the free expression of opinion is a growing problem. And it's happening on the grounds that a person's feelings might get hurt.

Until recently, legislators weren't concerned with how opinions might impact on the emotional states of individuals. But "I'm offended" has become a tool of incredible potence.

In Australia, governments are now consistently choosing to prefer a right not to be offended over the right to free speech. In fact, the proposed Tasmanian law highlights just how powerful this idea has become. The changes to the Anti-Discrimination Act move the state closer than ever to a general law against hurting someone else's feelings.

The fact that it is now unlawful to offend someone on the basis of 22 separate attributes is significant enough.

The logical next step - removing the attribute requirement altogether - is even more outrageous.

To its credit, the Coalition has recognised the idiocy of such restrictions.

In a significant victory for supporters of freedom of expression in Australia, Opposition Leader Tony Abbott promised during a speech made at the Institute of Public Affairs earlier this year to repeal the law that muzzled Bolt.

But restricting free speech based on hurt feelings is not the only threat to this cornerstone of democracy.

The Gillard Government is currently considering media restrictions, including licensing of the press.

Two inquiries into media regulation - the Finkelstein Inquiry and the Convergence Review - have recommended higher levels of government control over the content and ownership of Australia's media.

Among Finkelstein's recommendations was the setting up of a tribunal that would have the power to censor sections of the media.

Current threats to free speech are extremely concerning. It is far too valuable a right to give up because someone might be offended, insulted or humiliated. Nor should governments ever get to decide what ideas we see, hear and talk about. Freedom of speech is more important than that.