Charlie Hebdo and Freedom of Speech in Australia

The appalling and tragic attack on journalists at the French satirical magazine, Charlie Hebdo, has once again ignited a debate about the extent and limits of freedom of speech in Australia. 

Liberty Victoria is deeply concerned by the content and tenor of comment on this issue in some segments of the media and more widely by certain community organisations. 

For example, The Australian newspaper’s front page headline on the matter read ‘Muslim leaders support freedom to offend’. There is no right to offend in Australia. There is no right to be a bigot. The only right that is relevant is the right to freedom of expression. 

This headline, and the newspapers associated commentary, is a thinly veiled attempt to use the tragic events in Paris to resuscitate the recent controversy over the breadth of the Racial Discrimination Act’s protection against speech that offends, insults, humiliates or intimidates a person on the basis of his or her race. 

Liberty Victoria regards it as highly inappropriate to use the awful events in Paris simply as an avenue to advance a domestic political agenda. 

The Human Rights Commissioner, Tim Wilson, has added fuel to the fire by asserting that Charlie Hebdo’s recent front cover would be banned in Australia under s.18C of the Racial Discrimination Act. This is highly unlikely. 

Any attempt to prohibit or penalise a similar publication would contradict the Australian Constitution’s implied right of free public and political communication. So, any attempt to ban satirical comment on political or public affairs is likely to be declared unconstitutional. 

There is a genuine need to have a wide-ranging debate in Australia about the adequacy of the legal protection of freedom of expression. 

The great flaw in that protection is that at Federal level, there is no legislation which provides that protection. The present government for no good reason is opposed to the entrenchment of human rights like free expression in statute law. 

If the Abbott government is serious about protecting free speech it should introduce legislation giving it strong legal protection. 

Liberty has maintained for 20 years that s.18C of the Racial Discrimination Act is cast too widely. It does unreasonably constrain freedom of speech. It should not be a civil wrong to ‘insult or offend’. These words should be removed from s.18C. 

It would be preferable if the coverage of Charlie Hebdo focused primarily upon the global threat to freedom of expression and democracy that the attack upon it has made frighteningly clear. 

It is wrong to appropriate that terrible tragedy for the pursuit of parochial and ideological ends in this country.