Our own apathy is the biggest enemy of the right to free speech

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There have been some alarming things happening in Australia which remind us that there is no such thing as freedom of speech in this country.

Unlike the US, there is no right to free speech. The High Court has found an implied right to freedom of political communication, but if the communication is not necessary for the effective operation of government, then there is no right to it.

Our reminders that this is the case began on Monday of last week when a complaint was filed with the Tasmanian Anti-Discrimination Commission by Greens candidate Martine Delaney against the Australian Catholic Bishops’ Conference and Hobart’s Archbishop Julian Porteous.

The complaint related to the Don’t Mess with Marriage booklet, which was distributed in Catholic schools around Australia.

It was lodged in Tasmania because the anti-discrimination laws of that state make it an offence to “engage in any conduct which offends, humiliates, intimidates, insults or ridicules another person” on the basis of, among other attributes, sexual orientation.

The “sexual orientation” attribute was only added in September 2013, so it is new (and likely untested). From the time the complaint is lodged, the Anti-Discrimination Commission has six weeks to notify Archbishop Julian and the Australian Catholic Bishops if an investigation will proceed. At the time of writing, there has been no indication whether this will be the case. It will depend, in part, on whether Anti-Discrimination Commissioner Robin Banks is interested in pursuing this as a test case.

Ms Delaney has asked for an LGBTI awareness (read: re-education) program for all staff and students within the Catholic education system in Tasmania, and a public apology from the Archbishop Julian and the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference for distributing the booklet in the first place. In other words, Ms Delaney would like a public apology for having the audacity to try to form Catholic students and their parents in the Catholic faith.

If successful, even to the point of achieving an investigation, it would be a dangerous sign of things to come.

Then on Wednesday of last week, the visa of US pro-life activist Troy Newman was cancelled by the office of Immigration Minister, Peter Dutton. Mr Newman had already begun his journey to Australia, but was not permitted to board his scheduled flight from Denver to Los Angeles (prior to flying from Los Angeles to Melbourne.)

The visa was cancelled in response to a letter to Minister Dutton from Labor MP Terri Butler, who suggested that Mr Newman’s visit would risk significant harm to the community, particularly in the form of harassment, intimidation, threats or violence towards women accessing abortions and those providing them.

The basis of Ms Butler’s claims (and of those who joined their voices to hers) was an extract from a book co-authored by Mr Newman in 2000, titled Their Blood Cries Out. The particular passage extracted said that the United States government had abrogated its responsibility to execute convicted murderers, including abortionists.

This led to an allegation that he would be in Australia advocating violence, despite the website for his organisation Operation Rescue specifically denounces violent activity, and despite Mr Newman being involved in pro-life activities for almost three decades without breaking the law.

The fear of risk to the community was disingenuous, and a thinly-veiled attempt to silence a person who would speak up for the unborn. Those who sought the revocation of Mr Newman’s visa, if they were really honest with themselves – and with us – would admit that the pro-life message is the one they consider to be the real “risk.”

But it appears that the decision makers took the allegations at face value, and cancelled his visa.

As with Archbishop Julian’s case, it is a reminder that free speech is not permitted in this country, and that a person can be prohibited from expressing their ideas. It is also a reminder that there are some who will actively seek to ensure these prohibitions are enforced.

How are we to act in light of these reminders that our ability to proclaim our faith and profess the truth is at the mercy of the state?

First: we persevere in speaking the truth. We should respond to the anti-discrimination complaint against Archbishop Julian by educating our children about marriage within our homes. We should respond to the revocation of Mr Newman’s visa by continuing our own advocacy for the unborn. We should not wait until our ability to proclaim our faith is under threat in order to rally together. If we sit idly by, then we – ourselves – and not the state, are the biggest threat to our freedoms.