The facts: Free speech or hate speech?

HRLA has prepared a series of facts sheets to help you become informed about your religious freedom rights. This is the first in the series and discusses the issue of freedom of speech.

Here’s what you need to know.

Social context - vilification laws

Australia has a strong tradition of upholding the fundamental right of free speech. Increasingly, Governments are passing laws that encroach on what people can and can’t say about particular topics. Vilification or “hate speech” laws are designed to prevent speech that vilifies certain vulnerable groups in society. The motivations for these laws are good – no one supports hate speech. However, in practice, these laws are often used to silence dissenting views on controversial topics, or to make people hesitate to express these views in the first place.

What does the law say?

Most States have some form of vilification law. A typical provision prevents a person from “inciting hatred towards, serious contempt for, or severe ridicule of” a person or group of people, based on a particular attribute such as race, religion, sexuality, or gender identity. Conduct that may be prohibited includes any “public act” such as writing, speaking, or broadcasting to the public, or displaying signs or clothing that is publicly visible. Blogs, social media comments, or the distribution of flyers may all be considered a “public act”.

There are protections for conduct that is done reasonably and in good faith. Conduct that is for academic or artistic purposes, for example, or for public discussion or debate, will not be vilification under the law.

But the line between purposes that are “in the public interest” and those that are not can be controversial, and courts have often struggled deciding what constitutes vilification and what doesn’t.

General guidance: hate speech and Christian expression

The expression of Christian beliefs often attract controversy, particularly where those beliefs touch on issues such as the exclusive truth claims of Christianity, views about anthropology, sex and identity and issues of ethics and morality. Christians should generally take care in public speech and always consider context. This is especially important for online communication, where posts are permanently on record and can reach a very wide audience.

Some tips for engaging freely in public debate in the current legal environment:

  • Be informed. Know what the law in your state says.
  • Audience. Who is your intended audience? Be aware that comments on the internet can spread very far very quickly.
  • Personal. Don’t personally target somebody, or a group of people, based on a particular attribute. Keep discussions general. Criticise ideas, not individuals.

Lyle Shelton

A significant test of Queensland’s hate speech laws came in the case of Lyle Shelton.

In 2021, Lyle was sued by two Brisbane drag queens after writing a blog article saying that drag queens are a bad role model for children and criticising a “drag queen story time” event for children hosted by a public library. Lyle was accused of vilifying the drag queens on the basis of their sexuality and gender identity. HRLA represented Lyle in the Queensland Civil and Administrative Tribunal, which ruled that his comments were made “in good faith” and did not amount to vilification. This was a great win for free speech and parental rights.

The case highlighted the lack of clarity around vilification laws in different states, and demonstrated the threat that such laws can have on public discourse about controversial issues.

Note: This fact sheet does not constitute legal advice. If you would like advice on how vilification law impacts your religious expression, contact HRLA. Visit for more information.