The movie, The American President, is one of my all-time favourites. In one scene, the fictional President Andrew Shepherd says that if you really want free speech, then you need to also want it for someone who is “advocating at the top of his lungs that which you would spend a lifetime opposing at the top of yours.”
If you can’t defend the speech of someone with whom you disagree, then it is not free speech that you believe in, but yourself.
New South Wales Greens MLC David Shoebridge will be back in court this week to defend himself against a charge of failing to comply with a police direction.
Back on 19 December, a climate protest occurred outside Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s Kirribilli residence.
The rally was advertised to run from 9-11am, but after it finished, a group of protesters announced that they would camp out until the Prime Minister returned from his now-infamous holiday to Hawaii.
They pitched their tents and waited, before being instructed by the police to move.
Police in NSW have the power to ask a person in a public place to move on if the police officer reasonably believes that the person’s behaviour or presence is obstructing people or traffic, constitutes harassment or intimidation, or is causing or is likely to cause fear to another person.
I’m not sure which of these reasons was the basis of the police direction, but the order was made. Some complied, others didn’t.
This is where Mr Shoebridge comes in.
According to one protester, he arrived and complained to the police who were directing protestors to move, because – according to Mr Shoebridge – they were not hurting anyone or blocking anything.
As circumstances escalated, Mr Shoebridge himself was charged with a failure to comply with a direction.
Mr Shoebridge described this as “gross police overreach” and “an act of intimidation designed to break the will of protesters.”
He argued that the protest was peaceful, and so the protestors should have been allowed to stay.
He has pleaded not guilty to the charge and is fighting it out in court.
If he is unsuccessful, the maximum penalty that can be imposed for a failure to follow police direction is a $220 fine.
The resources wasted in having an MP whose salary is paid by taxpayers appear in courts that are funded by taxpayers far exceeds the maximum fine payable, but this is obviously not about the money.
Mr Shoebridge is arguing on principle; rallying against penalising protesters as a form of general deterrence and trying “to prove it’s not yet illegal to peacefully protest in this country.”
That is, of course, unless you want to peacefully protest outside an abortion clinic.
In those circumstances, Mr Shoebridge and his Greens colleagues support laws that allow not only a fine of up to $5,500 but imprisonment for up to six months for a person’s first peaceful protest, and double that if they dare try it again.
When those laws, which punish even a silent, prayerful vigil outside an abortion clinic, came before Parliament about 18 months ago (when abortion was still a crime in NSW), Mr Shoebridge described them as reasonable and appropriate.
In the logic of the Greens, police should be able to break up a peaceful protest against abortion and use heavy penalties as a deterrent but should not be permitted to break up one relating to climate change.
This is despite abortion being a much greater threat to human life and the future survival of the world than the effects of climate change.
If we are honest, more people have died and will die from abortion than have died or will die from the effects of climate change.
But the Greens don’t want you to protest about this, because it is not the right of protest that they care about, but their own causes.
If the Greens truly believed in the right to peaceful protest, then they would be moving a bill to repeal the exclusion zones around abortion clinics.
Until then, all this talk about the right to peaceful protest is just a load of hypocritical hot air.
And surely an excess of hot air is bad for the environment?