Before moving to the United States to work with human rights organisations there (because, let’s face it: the US needs human rights activism far more than Australia does), I worked for many of the most prominent human rights and civil liberties groups in Australia, including Amnesty International Australia, the NSW Council for Civil Liberties, the Castan Centre for Human Rights Law, the Human Rights Working Group of the Greens NSW, and the Human Rights Law Centre. As a human rights activist and a civil libertarian, I’ve dedicated my life to protecting and promoting human rights and civil liberties, not only in Australia, but around the world. One of the things that I remember most fondly was my experience with the Human Rights Law Centre, which is an organisation dedicated to – in its own words – “freedom, respect, equality, dignity”. While the Human Rights Law Centre always defends legitimate freedom of speech and assembly (for example, the Human Rights Law Centre campaigned against Victoria’s draconian anti-protest laws which were intended to stop progressive protests from taking place), the organisation has worked diligently to expand legal protections against hate speech in Australia and to vigorously prosecute anyone expressing hateful or anti-human rights sentiments. And, in one particularly memorable case, the Human Rights Law Centre campaigned successfully to have anti-abortion protests banned in Australia.
This brings up a question worth asking: should Australia go beyond banning anti-abortion protests and ban all anti-abortion speech? First off, let’s consider the nature of freedom of speech. Not only do people have freedom of speech, but people also have freedom from certain kinds of speech (for example, racism). Freedom of speech is not absolute, and nobody believes that it is. We all learned in school that freedom of speech does not protect hate speech, and this is not something that’s even up for debate. Even the most hardcore and dedicated ultra-libertarians and free speech fundamentalists still universally agree that things like racial vilification, incitement to hatred, and Holocaust denial should be subject to legal sanctions. Nobody believes that racial vilification should be legal, or that it should be legal to deny the Holocaust. Freedom of speech does have limits, and freedom of speech does not – under any circumstances – permit expressions of hatred. George Brandis sparked massive nationwide outrage when he proposed watering down our federal laws against hate speech, but even Brandis himself stated many times that racial vilification, incitement to hatred, Holocaust denial, and offensive opinions that weren’t voiced as part of a relevant, constructive public discussion should remain illegal. Likewise, the extremely anti-censorship Australian Sex Party – which is easily the most ultra-libertarian political party in Australia – has publicly stated that freedom of speech should never include the right to insult or offend, especially if the insulting or offensive speech is racist. Not even the most extreme free speech absolutists believe that freedom of speech should protect racism.
If freedom of speech does not protect racism – which everyone agrees that it doesn’t – then why should freedom of speech protect anyone trying to argue against a woman’s human right to make decisions about her own body? Freedom of speech should never be a license to oppose human rights, to spread lies and ignorance, or to argue against the common good. To quote the prominent theology professor Neil Ormerod: “Free speech for racist bigots, free speech for climate denialists. Where will it end? Free speech for the tobacco industry to deny smoking causes cancer? There is a value in free speech to promote reasoned discussion and deliberation. And then there is obdurate and at times wilful ignorance. Smoking does cause cancer, there are no superior races and human-induced climate change is as certain as it is scientifically possible to demonstrate.”
There are certain things that, in a free and democratic society, are simply not up for debate. Racial equality is one of those things, hence why we crack down hard on anyone attempting to spread racial hatred. Vaccines are another one of those things, hence why we’re now passing laws to ban anyone from spreading anti-vaccine lies. A woman’s uterus is also not up for debate. By opposing a woman’s right to make decisions about her own body, one is essentially saying that women are not equal to men and thus do not have human rights. How is this any different than racism? Why is this something that should be legally permissible?
Not only is the right to have an abortion a human right, but so is the right to accurate information. The arguments used by the anti-choice crowd are wrong, misleading, and dangerous. We wouldn’t allow people to spread lies about vaccines, so why should we allow people to spread lies about abortion? We wouldn’t allow people to vilify ethnic minorities, so why should we allow people to vilify women who have abortions? When people are allowed to manipulate public opinion against the common good, the results can more dangerous than anyone could possibly imagine. There is a reason that Australia bans hate speech and has strict media regulations: when the masses are exposed to hateful or un-democratic ideas, it can lead not only to things like the Cronulla race riots, but also to things like the Holocaust. In the words of the great human rights activist Tim Soutphommasane of the Australian Human Rights Commission, “genocide begins with words.”
Women who have abortions already tend to face depression and even suicide. Vilification from right-wing Christians increases the depression already faced by said women, and also increases their suicide rate tremendously, in the same way that the vilification of transgender people plays a major role in their high suicide rate. Freedom of speech is a core Australian value, but it’s not the only value that we have. Like all democratic rights, the right to freedom of speech comes with significant responsibility, and it has to be balanced against other rights. People also have the right to be free from lies, hatred, vilification, offense, misleading information, and insults, to name a few things. In a society based on human rights – which, despite everything, I strongly believe that Australia still is – there is absolutely no place for anyone who attempts to argue against human rights. Freedom of speech does not give anyone the right to oppose human rights. People who oppose human rights have absolutely no place in a human rights-based liberal democracy like Australia.
I speak for all Australians when I say that, in Australia, it is just common sense that freedom of speech doesn’t give anyone the right to offend, insult, humiliate, intimidate, vilify, incite hatred or violence, be impolite or uncivil, disrespect, oppose human rights, spread lies or misinformation, argue against the common good, or promote ideas which have no place in society. The idea that women should not be allowed to make decisions about their own bodies is, without a doubt, an idea that has no place in society. Freedom of speech exists so that people can have civil, polite, and reasonable discussions about issues that are worth discussing – NOT so that people can argue against the common good and/or denigrate the most vulnerable and marginalised members of society. Australia has absolutely nothing to learn from the anti-choice crowd. Tolerating their intolerance would not only be needless, but it would also be harmful and dangerous. Freedom of speech is counter-productive if it’s something that only benefits white men, who already wield the most disproportionate amounts of power and privilege in society. The voices of vulnerable and marginalised groups – for example, women (and especially women of colour) seeking abortions – are drowned out by the voices of rich and powerful white men. It’s time to change that.
When far-right, ultra-libertarian activist (and, unfortunately, current Human Rights Commissioner) Tim Wilson stated that, on the ridiculous grounds of “free speech”, Australia shouldn’t ban the camper car company Wicked Campers for its sexist slogans which incite rape and perpetuate rape culture, he sparked a national outrage. In Wilson’s deeply naive and profoundly misguided view, banning the company for using offensive slogans would be a dangerous “slippery slope”, and people should instead “use their free speech” to “speak out against” the sexist slogans. In Tim Wilson’s unbelievably backwards world, the “right” to publicly demean and harass women somehow trumps all other rights. Needless to say, Australia didn’t buy it. Tim Wilson was universally called a sexist, a misogynist, a rape apologist, and a privileged white man with absolutely no understanding of the relationship between rape culture and actual acts of rape. He was unanimously mocked and derided for standing up for a camper car company’s so-called “right” to demean and degrade women with appalling slogans like “Virginity is curable!” and “Fat girls are easier to kidnap.” He was widely condemned for failing to understand the difference between free speech and hate speech, thus demonstrating how he knows absolutely nothing about basic human rights. He was labeled as “the Human Rights Commissioner who does not believe that humans deserve rights”. He received a torrent of abuse and even death threats, and there were widespread calls for him to be sacked from his job. The Greens unanimously passed an Australian Senate motion condemning Wicked Campers for their sexist slogans (although Wicked Campers withdrew their sexist slogans and issued an apology before the government could actually ban them), and Tim Wilson – in his campaign to allow Wicked Campers to use sexist slogans – was widely held up across Australia as a perfect example of everything that’s wrong with the far-right. In essence, Australia told Tim Wilson – loud and clear – that we simply won’t stand for sexist hate speech, and we also won’t stand for anyone who defends sexist hate speech on bogus “free speech” grounds. Why, then, should Australia stand for anti-choice speech? Opposing a woman’s right to make decisions about her own body is the definition of sexism. Can any decent, right-thinking person honestly believe that such misogynistic beliefs have any place whatsoever in a progressive, tolerant, and inclusive society like modern-day Australia is supposed to be?
Laws exist to enforce acceptable behaviour. Arguing against a woman’s right to choose is not acceptable behaviour. Ergo, there is absolutely no reason that it should be legal either. We would never allow anyone to question racial equality, diversity, or multiculturalism, so why should we allow anyone to question a woman’s right to have an abortion? Australia needs to seriously consider expanding its current human rights legislation in order to outlaw not only the obvious forms of bigotry, but also any expressions which oppose a woman’s human right to choose, along with all other ideas which have no place in a modern human rights-based democratic society. The Human Rights Law Centre strongly believes that anti-abortion speech has no place in Australian society, and so do I. It’s time to start cracking down on anti-choice speech. Like racism, anti-choice speech simply has no place in Australian society.
In their war against “leftists”, the far-right in Australia has recently put much effort into trying to weaken our hate speech laws and un-muzzle right-wing bigots (along with other offensive voices). Of course, what the far-right completely fails to understand is that freedom of speech comes with responsibility. It’s time for sensible Australians – the vast majority of Australians – to fight back against the far-right agenda. There are certain views that are simply completely incompatible with a free society, and the view that women should be unable to make decisions about their own bodies is, without a doubt, one of those views. As any human rights lawyer could tell you, freedom of speech is something that always has to be balanced against other human rights, whether it’s the human right to freedom from racial vilification or the human right to freedom from insult. Hate and ignorance are NOT freedom of speech. Arguing against a woman’s human right to choose is, like racial vilification, an abuse of freedom of speech which has no place in a civilised society and thus should not be protected by freedom of speech. Freedom of speech should never be a license to hurt people or to oppose human rights. Some things are simply not up for debate, and my uterus is one of those things.
Recently, human rights activists and progressives campaigned to have the Islamophobic “Reclaim Australia” rallies banned. And, in Queensland, we almost succeeded – the Queensland police have reduced the rally to a barbeque with no signs or hate speech. Human rights activists and progressives in Australia are often quite successful in our campaigns to have right-wing hatemongers legally punished, so there is absolutely no reason to believe that we couldn’t be successful in having the anti-choice crowd legally punished. While it’s important to ensure that the law is never used to restrict genuine freedom of speech (for example, the progressive rallies that Victoria and other states tried to ban), there can be no place in modern Australian society for any form of hate speech. What Australia needs to do is to vigorously protect freedom of speech while aggressively prosecuting all forms of hate speech. Australia needs to protect the right to hold anti-business protests, pro-refugee protests, gay rights protests, Indigenous rights protests, pro-Palestinian protests, anti-hate protests, and other legitimate exercises of freedom of expression. At the same time, Australia needs to ban Islamophobic protests, anti-choice protests, anti-Palestinian protests, anti-marriage equality protests, and other forms of hate speech which abuse the right to freedom of expression and thus should not be protected by freedom of speech. Likewise, Australia needs to protect real journalists while shutting down all right-wing “journalism” outlets that peddle lies and hatred, manipulating public opinion against the common good. Freedom of speech does not give anyone the right to spread lies, hatred, or misinformation.
Most Australians support the right to have an abortion, just like most Australians (at least 88% of Australians, in fact) believe that all offensive or insulting speech should be outlawed. As such, the right to have an abortion is an Australian value. Does “freedom of speech” allow people to oppose the values of the nation? Does “freedom of speech” allow people to be willfully ignorant and downright wrong? Does “freedom of speech” allow people to oppose human rights? Of course not. Why, then, should “freedom of speech” ever allow anyone to oppose a woman’s human right to make decisions about her own body, which is something that most Australians support? Why should “freedom of speech” ever allow anyone to voice ideas which the vast majority of people believe are completely unacceptable?
When right-wingers talk about “freedom of speech”, what they’re actually talking about is freedom to hate. But guess what? In a civilized society like Australia, there is no freedom to hate. The fact that right-wingers refer to this sort of hate speech as “freedom” is a perfect example of Orwellian doublespeak. Hatred is not “freedom” in any way, shape, or form. Hatred is the exact opposite of freedom. In fact, right-wing bigots actually seek to take away our freedoms – and they will take away our freedoms if we allow them to spread their hateful ideology without any kind of muzzle. Freedom of speech does not mean that right-wing bigots shouldn’t be muzzled. Being unable to vilify people does NOT in any way equate to a lack of freedom of speech. While I fiercely and unequivocally support the right to free speech, opposing a woman’s right to choose clearly falls under the category of hate speech. Why, then, should it not be outlawed as such? The Human Rights Law Centre isn’t the only human rights group in Australia which has stated that Australia should strongly consider a ban on anti-choice speech. Numerous human rights organisations have stated that the existing laws against hate speech should be expanded to criminalise the expression of any idea which opposes human rights. After all, why should ideas which oppose human rights be given any place in a society supposedly built on human rights?
Australian society is a society based on rules, and these rules exist primarily to protect the most vulnerable and marginalised members of our society. Do we really want Australia to be like the United States, which has absolutely no protections whatsoever against hate speech, allows disgusting people like the Westboro Baptist Church to picket funerals with homophobic picket signs as “free speech”, allows real videos of extreme animal cruelty to be sold as “free speech”, allows people to advocate violence against minorities as “free speech”, and even allowed neo-Nazis to march through a town filled with Holocaust survivors under the guise of “free speech”? Is that really the kind of society that Australia wants to be like? I certainly don’t think so, and I certainly don’t think that the rest of Australia thinks so either. If Australia is truly serious about being a modern, progressive democracy that genuinely values freedom, equality, and inclusion, then we need to get serious about cracking down on all forms of oppressive speech, including anti-choice speech. Freedom of speech should never be something that hurts people. If “freedom of speech” is something that protects people who spew vitriol at the most vulnerable, marginalised, and oppressed segments of society, then that defeats the entire purpose of freedom of speech. Freedom of speech was created to allow the oppressed and marginalised to speak out, not to reinforce and encourage systems of oppression and marginalisation.
There can be no tolerance for intolerance, and right-wing hatred has absolutely no place in modern Australia. It’s time to start truly respecting basic freedom, civil liberties, and personal rights. We can start doing that by passing new human rights legislation to ban all forms of oppressive speech. Not only should anti-choice speech be banned, but so should all speech that voices approval of reactionary, hateful, bigoted, or anti-human rights ideologies. This includes pro-gun speech, speech that voices approval of Israeli apartheid in Palestine, speech that voices approval of the inhumane treatment of asylum seekers, speech advocating oppressive economic systems, anti-feminist speech, anti-environmental speech, anti-healthcare speech, anti-immigration speech, climate change denial, and any other ideologies which are harmful, hateful, and/or dangerous. In keeping with the proposed Human Rights and Anti-Discrimination Bill (which almost passed, but was unfortunately shot down by the efforts of the far-right), anyone accused of hate speech (which includes spreading any fascist ideologies) should be required to prove their innocence in a court of law or be declared automatically guilty. Bigoted and oppressive ideologies simply have no place in a progressive, civilised, safe, and inclusive nation like modern Australia. Unless we want to be a backwards, oppressive, and far-right reactionary nation like the United States, then we need to pass new human rights legislation to outlaw any dissemination of anti-human rights speech, starting with speech that opposes a woman’s human right to choose. Not only must freedom of speech be upheld, but so must freedom from hatred. Australia will never be up to international human rights standards until we make protecting basic human dignity a top priority.