Freedumb: Are Your Liberties Really At Stake?

At the heart of Australian democracy lies a few basic principles. These include freedom of election, freedom of assembly, freedom of speech, expression and religious belief, rule of law and other basic human rights. These values are echoed across the globe with many countries having similar underlying standards, often expressed in different ways.

In the past few weeks however, there has been a lot of debate both nationally and internationally, from the left and the right, on how the scales balance on these rights and freedoms – particularly freedom of speech or free speech.

Some of these issues include, freedom of speech policies at universities, the ever-amended and failed Religious Discrimination Bill, COVID-19 protests, Australia boycotting the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics and of course the discourse around the Joe Rogan podcast. We discuss some of these issues in turn below.

Free Speech Policies at Australian Universities:

Policies regarding free speech at universities are stronger now than they ever were two years ago. Public reports on academic freedom are being realised yearly.

All 41 Australian universities have aligned their free speech with a “model code” that has been recommended by a Government-commissioned review of freedom of speech in Australian higher education providers in 2019. 

The model code follows a High Court decision to uphold the termination of former James Cook University marine scientist, Dr Peter Ridd, who more or less denied climate change and its effects on the Great Barrier Reef back in 2018.

The case was run on an ‘all-or-nothing’ basis, in which the High Court inevitably found Ridd’s right to freedom of expression did not trump the code of conduct’s requirements for respect and courtesy. It also found that firing him was reasonable as some of his opinions were unrelated to his academic expertise.

Federal Education Minister, Alan Tudge, believes the developments — stronger policies and public reporting — are instrumental for protecting free speech and academic freedoms for students and academics. He states, “if universities are not places for free, robust speech, then their very purpose is jeopardised…you cannot advance knowledge without challenging existing orthodoxies, and risk causing offence in the process.” 

The code does directly protect a person if they feel offended or shocked or insulted by the lawful speech of another, however it does prevent any person from using any lawful speech to humiliate or intimate others.

Religious Discrimination Bill & It’s Controversies:

Christian groups are outraged by the amendments made to the Coalition’s religious discrimination bill. The new amendments protect students or teachers from being expelled/fired or punished for their sexuality or gender. Scomo is being accused of “betraying” the original intentions of the bill.

The previously proposed Religious Discrimination Act was intended to prevent a person from being discriminated against on the basis of their religion.

However, the Government has agreed to remove any existing laws that allow schools to exclude students and teachers based on their sexuality.

In 2018, Scomo vowed to protect LGBTQI+ students and teachers with the new bill despite the bill allowing religious schools to discriminate against them in other ways – which is exactly why the bill never passed back then.

In response to the amendments, a group has come out demanding an exemption to the amendments so that religious schools can be allowed to discriminate against LGBTQI+ students teachers. However, it seems that this attempt will not be successful.

It appears that the new amendment will not be extended to transgender students or teachers, as it requires additional work that will be considered in a review by the Australian Law Reform Commission (ALRC) after the election.

This circumstances are extremely complicated as they involve two different groups with opposing views. Allowing one of these groups to express their freedoms in essence means the other cannot and vice versa. Thus, we must ask what is most reasonable to do in the situation, in which logic suggests it would be to protect LGBTQ+ students, which is exactly what the federal Government has done. Unfortunately, during negotiations trans students and teachers were left out of equation.

Consequently, you can see how and why this is such a complex issue, thus ultimately leading to the bill not passing the Senate and to be shelved indefinitely.

COVID-19 Protests in Australia:

There was an 8-day protest against vaccines and vaccine mandates in Canberra. Thousands of people gathered across the city. These protests were also seen in other states such a Queensland and Victoria, all campaigning for the same cause. A lot of the anti-vax and anti-lockdown protests were actually nubbed on the grounds that they posed a health risk, while other protests and marches were allowed, suggesting there is a disparity between the freedoms granted to some citizens over others.

Moreover, the corporate world has also weighed in. One example is GoFundMe, who has frozen access to more than $160,000 in funds raised by supporters of a convoy of trucks and cars converging on Canberra to protest COVID-19 vaccine mandates. They have also done this with a similar convoy in Canada. Do with that information as you will, as some believe this also a type of censorship – who knows?

Across all of these protests, police have made arrests for breaching health orders, as well as some drug-related offences and outstanding warrants. However, protests believe the heavy policing at these protests are a way of silencing and delegitimising their right to protest rather than enforcing health orders.

Do you think that these protests raise important questions about the nature of freedom of speech? Do you think the police were just enforcing health orders or was it an attempt to suppress what people can say, think or believe? Definitely two sides of a coin here.

Beijing Winter Olympics:

The Beijing Winter Olympics is an area of concern as well. It appears there has and will continue to be a level of censorship by the Chinese government. Concerns of censorship and free speech (or lack thereof) were cited after the deputy director of international relations for the Beijing committee, Yang Shu, publicly stated that there will be “dedicated departments” that will investigate what athletes say at the games.

Moreover, he literally stated that “Any behaviour or speech that is against the Olympic spirit, especially against the Chinese laws and regulations, are also subject to certain punishment.” – We can’t make that up, people.

Richard Colbeck, The Australian Sports Minister, has since come out and said that he is “very concerned” about the statements like this being made by Chinese government officials.

“The International Olympics Committee has made it clear that all athletes have the right to political opinions and the freedom to express them including through social media and media interviews,” Colbeck said in comments to the Sydney Morning Herald, which, evidently, don’t align with the attitudes of the Chinese government.

Australia will join the US, UK and Canada in a diplomatic boycott of the Beijing Games, citing human rights and diplomatic concerns. This means that no Australian officials will attend any Beijing Olympics events, but its athletes will still be allowed to participate. Scomo has stated that this decision was in “Australia’s interests”.

The human rights group ‘Human Rights Watch’ is particularly concerned with the “Orwellian surveillance state” measures implemented by the Chinese authorities and has given clear warning to athletes about making any comments about the current situation involving Uyghur/Turkic Muslims.

Joe Rogan Podcast Controversy:

Arguably the biggest story, both nationally and internationally, is the call to boycott American comedian/podcaster Joe Rogan, who released podcast episodes criticising the COVID-19 vaccines, detailing alternative treatments to COVID-19 and is generally accused of spouting misinformation.  

Since the start of the pandemic, there has been an outright war against misinformation, and everyone with decent internet connection seems to have an opinion. On face value, this shouldn’t be an issue. However, when the opinions revolve around an global health crisis and the health of the public, ensuring only the “correct” opinions are heard becomes paramount. Free speech then takes a back seat.

For years there has been constant debate over the healthiest diet, low fat vs low sugar, keto vs paleo, which are all different recommendations from health experts that are aimed at minimising obesity – the cause of millions of deaths a year. However, it seems the ‘misinformation’ in this area of health is not scrutinised to the same degree when it comes to COVID-19.

Shortly after the public outcry for Spotify to censor Joe Rogan’s podcast, a video compiling the time he has used the N-word over 12 years’ worth of podcasting. Although his actions are inexcusable and there should be repercussions for his actions, the timing of this all and the previous attempts of censorship, this seems like a final clutching at straws in order to ‘cancel’ him.

There has since been a lot of support for Rogan from his peers and fans across the world, but undoubtedly many have taken the ‘ctrl+alt+delete’ approach.

There is also a lot of pressure from Government officials and even celebrity figure heads are all doing whatever they can to help expel misinformation leading to more censorship and the perpetual growth of ‘cancel culture’.

For those who don’t know – cancel culture is the practice or tendency of engaging in mass cancelling (or shunning) as a way of expressing disapproval and exerting social pressure – according to Merriam Webster.

Regardless of where you stand in this situation or the next or on any situation for that matter, it is clear that, as grows the power social media has along with the level of Government influence on these platforms, the impulse to cancel or censor an individual ultimately grows too. Thus, the very fabric of our ‘free society’ as we know it may be susceptible to some tearing.

And so, the question to answer at this stage would be – ‘exactly how free is our society?’ Well let’s break it down.

It is crucial to really understand what is being said when we use the words ‘freedom of speech’. Generally, ‘freedom of speech’ boils down to two main things: freedom of opinion or belief, and freedom of expression.

What does mean for Australians? Well freedom of opinion gives you the right to hold a belief without interference, exception, or restriction. You have the right to believe anything you want. You can believe in big foot or that the world is secretly run by exclusive group of underground reptiles

Freedom of expression on the other hand is a little more complex. Although you have our right to say what you want (now days, type what we want) – like give your opinions, create art or protest —you are bound to certain limits. The limits are fairly common sensical.  You can’t go around picking fights with your words, slander or defame people, cause panic or incite violence. What you say must be within reasonable.

A good quote to remember before you exercise your right to freedom of expression is:

“Freedom of speech is not hate speech without consequence”

A common and useful analogy to explain how this works is the right to drive. When you are given the right to drive on the road, you must still observe speed limits, appropriate parking, do not drive under the influence and other rules.

You can’t just drive recklessly or negligently, and this is exactly how the limits on what you can say work. The rules and limits are in place to uphold peace and enhance the function of the rights.

In the case of the protesters, they are claiming and acting as if they have a right to not conform to restrictions put in place for the sake of public health and safety. In other words, they are not acknowledging any limits. In the case of the Christian lobbies, they are not acknowledging the fact expressing their beliefs in a certain way will be intruding on others beliefs, so on and so forth – I’m sure you get the picture.

Your actions have consequences, and just like anything, if your actions are breaking the rules, you will be reprimanded.

But what about free speech online? Free speech on privately owned platform that is available to the public? Social media?

If you recall, Former US President, Donald Trump, was infamously banned from Twitter and Facebook. This means regardless of who you are, if what you say or do violates the private entities policies you will be blocked or censored.

If you think about a private business – they have the discretion to allow people into their premises based on conditions like dress code or behaviour. Most people would think this is fair. However, when businesses began not letting people in based on their vaccination status, things become a little blurred. A such the argument of freedom of expression and opinion was at a knives edge once again.

So, what conditions do you think are acceptable when to entering a private premise available to public, such as a restaurant or café? What do you think is reasonable?

There seems to a clear distinction between online platforms and the real world.

Lastly, I think the overarching message here is freedom to a certain extent means allowing others the same rights.

We need to strike this balance in order for everyone to participate in society, equally.

How do you think we strike this balance? Does the Australian government facilitate a fair go for everyone? What do you think?

In the United States, the First Amendment in the United States Constitution outlines their freedom of speech as a right for all citizens. However, in Australia, our right to freedom of speech is not explicitly expressed in our constitution, but rather through ratifying international human rights treaties. Thus, the right to freedom of opinion and expression is contained in articles 19 and 20 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

It is also protected under Common Law through the statutory interpretation in Australia courts, State and Territory Law and indirectly under Constitution Law through government restraints.

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