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Terry Lane has an article in the recent Australian Book Review about freedom of speech in this country, which is something I’ve been thinking about lately.

There is no guarantee of freedom of speech in our constitution. In some cases the High Court has found an implied protection, ruling that as the constitution envisages the nation as a democracy, and as democracy cannot function if political argument is impeded, then the drafters of the constitution must have taken freedom of speech for granted. This is convenient eyewash.

The Australian constitution is derived, in part, from that of the United States. The American constitution says, in its first amendment, adopted in 1791, that: ‘Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.’ Our constitution includes the prohibition of the establishment of a religion, so why did the drafting convention not take the first amendment in its entirety? Clearly they thought it was a revolutionary concept best left out.

Australia is, I am fairly certain, alone amongst Western nations in not having a bill of rights that outlines basic rights such as freedom of speech. Explaining this to foreigners is not just embarassing, like explaining why the Union Jack is on our flag – it’s downright dangerous. Lane outlines several minor but disturbing incidents:

Zanny Begg, an artist, had her outdoor exhibition Checkpoint for Weapons of Mass Distraction (2004), hosted by the University of Western Sydney and the Blacktown Arts Centre, shut down because some zealous minor council official, backed by the mayor, took exception to her anti-war message. This was much like the removal of the burned and tattered flag created by Melbourne artist Azlan McLennan, which he exhibited with the label Proudly UnAustralian (2006). When an unknown person complained, the police removed the offending item from the gallery.

And the most frustrating part is the attitude of most Australians about the issue. On the subject of flag-burning:

Jennifer says: ‘They should be stopped from doing it in a public place with children around … and have their own little flag-burning ceremonies [in] backyards. If it was to happen in a public place then they should be charged and made to apologise to the people they have offended … ’ There is something profoundly, obsequiously, stupidly Australian in that single sentence. You can say whatever you like about anything you like as long as no one can hear you and you don’t block the traffic. I am grateful to Gelber for confirming what I have long suspected.

Beyond that is the idea held by many Australians that it really doesn’t matter – that as long as the government isn’t hauling you off the street in a black van, that as long as we’re better than China or North Korea, then you shouldn’t be whining about having your art installation removed from a gallery. This is related to a wider apathy about all things political (“why should I care if it doesn’t affect me?”) which annoys me immensely. The same people who say this would be outraged if it did affect them, and even more outraged if nobody else cared. Freedom is generally an abstract concept to people until they are deprived of it, no matter how minor that deprivation may be.

Glenn Greenwald explains why freedom of speech is important better than I can:

The whole point of the First Amendment is that one is free to express the most marginalized, repellent, provocative and offensive ideas. Those are the views that are always targeted for suppression. Mainstream orthodoxies, harmless ideas, and inoffensive platitudes require no protection as they are not, by definition, vulnerable to censorship. But as has been repeatedly seen in history, ideas that are despised and marginalized are often proven right, while ideas that enjoy the status of orthodoxy prove to be deeply erroneous or even evil. That’s why no rational person trusts the state — or even themselves — to create lists of Prohibited Ideas. And those who endorse the notion that ideas they hate should be forcibly suppressed inevitably — and deservedly — will have their own ideas eventually targeted by the same repressive instruments.

If you don’t believe in freedom of speech – if you believe that the government should be permitted and even encouraged to stifle views that you find offensive – then you don’t believe in freedom at all. Criminalising the expression of viewpoints is, morally, equivalent to criminalising thoughts and ideas. And the reason that many Australians don’t particularly care is reason enough to have this right encoded in law, rather than relying upon convention.

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April 2011