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Freedom of expression for the rest of us


'Bigots Unchained' by Chris Johnston shows a 'bigoted' broadcaster handing his chains over to a police officer who looks set to apply them to some protestors who stand in the backgroundThe repeal of section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act, which made it unlawful to publish material that offends or insults a person or group on the grounds of race, colour or national or ethnic origin, is good news for people such as Andrew Bolt, after whom these so-called 'Bolt Laws' were named.

Bolt's lawyer in the case in which he was found to have breached Section 18C, has since stated that the changes mean the case would never see the inside of a courtroom. Rather, he writes, those who had been targeted by Bolt would have had to hit back with 'the most powerful weapon of all' — their own free speech.

Of course, unlike Bolt, none of those people have their own daily column and TV show and an audience of millions. For most of us, our exercise of freedom of expression takes the form of public protest and assembly.

How ironic then, that even as Attorney General George Brandis ensures the rights of 'bigots', the rest of us are finding our own rights under threat, as Liberal state governments across the country continue to roll out laws that affect the more marginalised and less privileged among us.

Victoria's new Summary Offences and Sentencing Amendment Bill — better known as the anti-protest law — which recently passed the upper house, significantly expands police 'move-on' powers and, in a blow for anyone who thinks public protest is a vital form of dissent and expression, removes the exemption for political protests.

Police can now issue move on orders (effective for 24 hours) to 'protesters who are blocking access to buildings, obstructing people or traffic, or who are expected to turn violent'. 

Those found breaching the order are subject to arrest, and any who receive more than three in a six-month period (or six in 12 months) risk a 12-month jail term. This has led some to claim the laws are a thinly veiled attack on what remains of Victoria's trade unions, for whom public protest remains a key form of activism. 

Even Victoria's Attorney General Robert Clark has conceded the laws limit 'an individual's right to move freely within Victoria ... and may, in certain circumstances, limit the rights to freedom of expression, and peaceful assembly and freedom of association'.

Community groups are also worried. The Salvation Army warns that increased move-on powers will 'disproportionately affect marginalised young people, people experiencing homelessness, poverty and mental health issues'. Increased exclusion from public spaces is likely to leave vulnerable people with no place to turn.

They have reason to be concerned. Queensland police saw their move-on powers increase in 2006. That year, a survey by the University of Queensland of 132 homeless people found that 76.5 per cent had been issued a move-on order at least once in the last six months. Some of the respondents stated that the same police officers 'chased' them throughout the day, moving them on from place to place.

In Western Australia move-on directions are used disproportionately against Indigenous Australians. A report (also from 2006) by the Indigenous Law Bulletin went as far as to state that while the law itself was not racist its application certainly was:

Western Australian ('WA') 'move on laws' are used by police as a mechanism for the social control of Aboriginal people. The laws are used to move individuals from well known public places in city areas where Aboriginal people congregate. The laws have become another example of discriminatory policing of an already over-policed Aboriginal population and are further contributing to the huge overrepresentation of Aboriginal people in the WA criminal justice system. 

The move-on orders often include the entire Perth CBD, and sometimes include the area where the person lives, essentially confining them to their own home unless they wish to risk arrest for violating the order. Some were arrested and given a criminal record without having committed a criminal offence.

One woman, on her way to an appointment, was arrested for violating a move-on order not far from her home, just one minute before her order expired. Others were arrested five to 20 minutes after being moved on, as they waited for public transportation to take them out of the exclusion zone.

That people can be arrested without committing a crime is a worrying trend. It is also occurring in Queensland, where the controversial anti-association or 'anti-bikie' laws ban three or more members of an outlawed motorcycle club from meeting in public, for whatever reason. The January arrest of five Victorian men as they went out for ice-cream in Queensland led the now-Human Rights Commissioner Tim Wilson to declare that the laws were 'violating the human right of association', and to seek the laws' repeal.

While the Queensland Government maintains the laws target illegal clubs, critics, such as Gabriel Buckley, president of the Liberal Democrats, warn that they are 'so broadly written that they could be used against any group of people'.

NSW hasn't gotten off scott-free either. As part of his laws aimed at curbing alcohol-fuelled violence, Premier Barry O'Farrell (who, to his credit, has criticised the repeal of 18C) has just upped the fine for using offensive language in public from $150 to $500. So, while privileged Australians can now offend other people in print, us minions would do well to think twice before doing so in public.

So, what's that they were saying about freedom of speech, again?

Ruby Hamad headshotRuby Hamad is a Sydney writer and associate editor of progressive feminist website The Scavenger. She blogs and tweets.

Topic tags: Ruby Hamad, Andrew Bolt, racial discrimination, Barry O'Farrell, George Brandis



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Existing comments

Yes, how dare George Brandis “ensures the rights of bigots”. If only the Romans had adopted Australia’s “hate speech” laws, the Pharisees would not have had to tolerate the offensive, insulting, annoying and humiliating language from that upstart preacher from Galilee.

Ross Howard | 03 April 2014  

Ross Howard: " the Pharisees would not have had to tolerate the offensive, insulting, annoying and humiliating language from that upstart preacher from Galilee".................. It is becoming increasingly clear that many of the words attributed to Jesus were, in fact not spoken by him. The criticism of the Pharisees among whose ranks Paul claimed membership, was almost certainly inserted into the Gospels which were written by the Greek-speaking converts to "Christianity", resentful of the opposition by the Jews who rejected their claims of divine intervention. It would be interesting to know what Jesus would say about offensive speech if he were to return now. It is often not so much what is said as the way it is expressed that is offensive.

Robert Liddy | 04 April 2014  

What an interesting perspective! You've identified what we've suspected all along - that the proposed changes to the RDA have nothing to do with protecting free speech. If the Coalition was really oh so interested in protecting free speech, they wouldn't be introducing laws across the country aimed at removing rights of assembly and acting as if the two aren't connected.

James B | 04 April 2014  

Thanks Ruby for drawing together a number of worrying free speech issues. I agree the free speech changes seem to advantage those already in positions of power, not those marginalised.

John Bartlett | 04 April 2014  

How evident this makes the need for a Bill of Rights. This welcome clear analysis demonstrates the problem of the lack of such a Bill to restrain governments from overstretching their powers.

Gary Bouma | 04 April 2014  

Please don't speak in the past tense! Section 18C still exists, and is still doing its work to protect against harmful speech. Sen.Brandis has proposed repealing and replacing it, but it is only a proposal at this stage. Submissions - for and against - can be made until 30 April: http://www.ag.gov.au/Consultations/Pages/ConsultationsonamendmentstotheRacialDiscriminationAct1975.aspx

Simon Rice | 10 April 2014  

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