Vilification Laws Misused to Attack Free Speech

What do you think about ‘cancel-culture’?

A healthy liberal democratic society requires freedom to exchange ideas and beliefs and to participate in public debate. A society that lacks such freedoms will not last for long. Merely being exposed to an idea we don’t like is not harmful. It’s part of living in a harmonious society.

In many States, vilification laws make it an offense to incite hatred, revulsion, or ridicule of a person with particular attributes, such as sexual orientation or gender identity. These laws appear beneficial on the surface. Who doesn’t want to stop hatred or ridicule? However, in Australia, activists are increasingly misusing these vilification laws to attack people with religious and political convictions that they do not like.

This places a chokehold on freedom of speech. Vilification laws make speech vulnerable to the subjective feelings of a complainant regardless of whether the speech is true, whether it expresses legitimate opinion or belief, whether the purported offense is intentional or not, or whether the complainant has suffered any real harm or not.

What follows are four recent examples of cancel culture and weaponised vilification laws in action.

Lyle Shelton

In January 2020, the Brisbane public library hosted a Drag Queen Story Time event where two drag queens were engaged to read LGBTQI+ stories to young children.

Shortly after this event, Lyle Shelton, the former head of the Australian Christian Lobby and social commentator, published a blog post using public information that criticised the event and stated his view that children need to be protected from sexualised role models and shouldn’t be exposed to the promotion of gender confusion.

The drag queens subsequently filed vilification claims against Lyle concerning the blog post with the Queensland Human Rights Commission. Lyle was forced to attend a conciliation conference which was unsuccessful. Unsatisfied with that outcome, the complainants are now pursuing their claim in the Queensland Civil and Administrative Tribunal, which could be the start of a lengthy battle.

Senator Claire Chandler

An activist has filed a vilification complaint in Tasmania against Senator Claire Chandler over an opinion piece that she published in August 2020 concerning women’s rights. Senator Chandler said that women’s sports, changing rooms and toilets were designed for people of the female sex and should remain that way.

By standing up for women’s rights and safety, Senator Chandler has drawn the ire of trans-activists. Rather than engaging Senator Chandler via respectful means, such as open debate or even at the ballot box, activists are using lawfare to punish her for standing up for what were, until very recently, completely respectable and widely-held common-sense views.

Bridget Clinch v Bethanie Rep

In a recent ACT Tribunal decision, Canberra newsreader Bethanie Rep was fined $10,000 for allegedly vilifying transgender activist Bridget Clinch.

Rep has been an outspoken critic of what she sees as the infringement of women’s rights by transgender women. In a previous mediated settlement she agreed to post an apology to Clinch on her social media page for previous comments. This apology provoked many other posts to be made on her social media page, some that were derogatory towards feminists, some derogatory towards Bridget Clinch, and some that were made in response to these posts. Ms Rep had liked some of the comments that supporter her.

The full decision from the Act Tribunal is sobering. The Tribunal found that once Rep became aware of comments that the Tribunal ruled to be unacceptable, she became responsible for them – even if the comments were not her own and were derogatory towards feminists.

The Courts are fast becoming the protectors of hurt feelings of activists in the minefield of social media. While such decisions might dissuade some intemperate and uncivil debate, it is quickly morphing into the suppression of unfashionable beliefs and ideas.

Katrina Tait

HRLA recently helped Queensland professional photographer and mother-of-four Katrina Tait fight off a vexatious vilification claim made against her in NSW under NSW laws. Katrina had posted on Facebook in connection with a public petition to remove Drag Queen Story Time from Brisbane public libraries. In her post, she remarked that she did not think that adult entertainers were good role models and should not be reading stories to young children.

The NSW Anti-Discrimination Board accepted a homosexual vilification claim filed against Katrina by a Sydney based homosexual activist even though the claim was vexatious and misconceived.

With the help of HRLA, Katrina was able to defend the claim. In the face of public scrutiny, the complaint was withdrawn. However, the effect of such a stressful ordeal cannot be underestimated. The process is often the punishment in these kinds of weaponised vilification claims.

Conclusion

What are the take-home messages from these cases for Christians and those concerned about free speech? Perhaps the easiest option is just to retreat from public discourse? This is not the way. A society where people self-censor and go silent on their sincere beliefs will descend into a culture of heavily policed thought.

Firstly, be aware of the risks. The amount of Christians who could be liable for vilification is high when engaging in robust debate online, even if you facilitate that debate on your social media page without engaging yourself. People should be aware of what is on their social media, how to moderate and curate their pages and should deal with problem content as soon as they become aware of it.

Secondly, engage carefully. Christians should be charitable, merciful, and gracious everywhere, but especially on social media. 1 Peter 2: 15 tells us that by doing good, we put to silence the ignorance of foolish people. Sadly, Christians on social media will engage to deliberately provoke ignorant responses. This should not be. Christians should think critically, speak for and promote ideas and beliefs and considerately engage with others who differ with us.

Thirdly, we should not participate in the cancel culture. Unpopular or controversial ideas should be met with other ideas, not lawfare. Strong disagreement with someone else’s opinion should not be worked out in Courts. It should be worked out in public debate and engagement.

A flourishing democratic society is built upon robust debate. The abuse of vilification laws by viewpoint activism is not only detrimental to free speech, it is detrimental to a healthy liberal democratic society. A civil society doesn’t attack people because of their ideas. It listens and engages in the pursuit of truth for the benefit of all.

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