Legislating Free Speech

Legislating Free Speech

What is happening to Israel Folau should not happen in a free society. GoFundMe’s hypocritical decision to shut down a fundraiser for rugby star and devout Christian Israel Folau is another win for the self-appointed cosmopolitan elite who want to control how Australians speak and think.

Last Monday, GoFundMe, a website which allows users to solicit donations for a variety of causes, announced that it would be closing Folau’s fundraising campaign and issue refunds to the nearly 10,000 donors who had given their support. Folau was seeking $3 million to fund legal fees to bring an action against Rugby Australia to the Fair Work Commission for unlawfully terminating his contract after he made comments on social media expressing a dramatic but traditional Christian view of morality.

In April, Folau shared on his Instagram account an image which said to ‘drunks, homosexuals, adulterers, liars, fornicators, thieves, atheists, idolaters’ that ‘Hell awaits you! Only Jesus saves.’ The self-appointed arbiters of morality – who largely reject the concept of sin and hell – wanted more than to disagree with Folau’s theological assertion, as is our right in a free society. They wanted to silence him, penalise his speech, and to stop people from donating to his cause. This is fundamentally totalitarian.

GoFundMe buckled to an outcry of activists largely focused within Australia’s media outlets and on Twitter, alleging the campaign violated the site’s terms of service. ‘As a company, we are absolutely committed to the fight for equality for LGBTIQ+ people and fostering an environment of inclusivity. While we welcome GoFundMes engaging in diverse civil debate, we do not tolerate the promotion of discrimination or exclusion.’

By any definition, GoFundMe did discriminate against Folau and exclude him from use of the site – just as Rugby Australia excluded the star from playing the sport he excelled at for Australia. This aggressive approach to inclusion and equality has an oppressively unequal impact. As Comrade Napoleon and his ruling pigs would proclaim at Animal Farm, ‘all animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.’

GoFundMe may be in breach of discrimination laws, but should be free to exercise discretion about who it associates with – just as a Christian school should be free to decide who it employs or who it admits as a student. But it nonetheless deserves criticism for acting as a political tool which enforces a progressive ideological conformity. This is illustrated by the site refusing to exercise a similar discretion when a fundraiser was launched for the ‘egg boy’ for ‘legal fees’ and ‘more eggs’ after being filmed assaulting a member of parliament in March. This is despite campaigns in support of ‘the legal defence of alleged crimes associated with… violence’ are in violation of GoFundMe’s vaunted terms of service.

Also insincere is the horror that crowd-funding could be used for legal fees, at a time when, for instance, others were crowdfunding for life-saving surgery. So will we also see the same people express indignation about Greens senator Sarah Hanson-Young using the very same site to raise funds for her defamation lawsuit against former Liberal Democratic senator David Leyonhjelm? Crowd-funding for legal fees is an important mechanism for enabling people to assert their rights under the law and find justice. The fact that Folau’s campaign generated $700,000 in donations before it was shut down illustrates how important this case was for many Australians – not because they wanted Folau to continue playing Rugby, but because of what his case symbolises for the place of Australians of faith in the public square.

This is the important lesson of this ongoing saga. In order to participate in Australian society, people of religious faith are expected to be silent about their beliefs – or to express those beliefs in a manner which just so happens to be ideologically indistinguishable from secular progressivism. Folau has been told that he can either retract what he said and play rugby again in Australia, or he can seek opportunities overseas in another competition. Being a Christian and feeling free to occasionally make public statements about your faith should not require such a choice – not in a free country that is comfortable with tolerating religious differences and beliefs. In effect, Folau is being forced to choose between two religions: his Christianity or state-sponsored secular progressivism.

Even wives are now expected to disavow their husbands: pressure has been exerted on Netball Australia, the national administrative body for the sport, to act in response to Folau’s wife and Adelaide Thunderbirds player, Maria Folau, for publicly supporting her husband’s fundraising campaign. As of writing that contract remains intact.

Religion is being aggressively driven out of the public square. The political risk is that actions taken by Rugby Australia and GoFundMe will invite a regulatory response. The current proposal from the Morrison government is to introduce a religious discrimination act and to establish the position of religious freedom commissioner within the Australian Human Rights Commission. Further details about these reforms are urgently needed, but the thought of the AHRC being given more laws to administer is a troubling prospect – given its history administering laws like section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act there is sufficient reason to consider that a pessimistic prospect for freedom.

Yet this can be no worse than what the Labor party proposed ahead of the May election. The ALP’s 2018 policy platform opposed the ambiguous concept of ‘harmful harassment’ as ‘an unacceptable abuse of the responsibilities that come with freedom of speech and must be subject to effective sanctions.’ Australia has temporarily avoided this fate, but it is the credo of radical progressive activists, and it is what they intend to enact when they possess the levers of power.

Folau’s case is an important test for Australian society. If someone as prominent as Israel Folau can be silenced like this, then the danger to unknown Australians of faith is far reaching. To excuse this would be to signal that we as a culture have elevated authoritarian ideas about identity politics and allow them to restrict how we practise freedom in our everyday lives. A healthy liberal democracy depends on the good faith of its members to tolerate speech they may find disagreeable – and to disagree in open debate.

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