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Wren's Week: Freedom of speech according to Jones and Hanson

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Alan Jones and Pauline Hanson believe in fighting for free speech... when it applies to them (Images via Wikimedia Commons - edited)

Freedom of speech has been questioned this week by two people who only believe in it when it suits them, writes John Wren.

LET'S TALK ABOUT freedom of speech this week as it has been very topical. First off, what is freedom of speech? In Western democracies, it basically means an individual can express whatever they like without fear of legal prosecution. Simply stated, an individual is legally allowed to say whatever they like without fear of being arrested.

An important distinction here is that freedom of speech does not mean freedom from criticism or other repercussions; personal, professional and/or commercial. If criticism was illegal, that would also be a restriction on free speech.

In the USA, freedom of speech is enshrined in the First Amendment of their Constitution. Australia has no such written guarantee although there are countless cases of legal precedent to support it. The only area where Australians’ right to free speech is limited – in my opinion rightly – is when it comes to hate speech and racial discrimination via s18c of the Racial Discrimination Act. Most Australians seem to think we have the same enshrined liberties as the USA. We don’t, but it’s not a big issue for most rational people.

The fall-out from Alan Jones’s deplorable attack on Jacinda Ardern has continued and gained substantial momentum with significant numbers of his advertisers withdrawing their advertising and making public statements that they do not support the sentiments and don’t want Alan Jones to be associated with their brands. He’s toxic.

The conservative commentariat led by the usual contingent of Sky News After Dark nutters has claimed that Alan Jones’s free speech is being attacked. One would think that these so-called journalists would understand the definition of free speech. Apparently not. Jones was legally allowed to make his appalling statements and his advertisers are well within their legal rights to respond by cancelling their advertising. His free speech has not been impinged.

The other free speech bed-wetter this week is serial offender Queensland Senator and One Nation Leader Pauline Hanson. After PM Scott Morrison condemned Alan Jones for his comments, she tweeted that she was disappointed because the PM should have “supported free speech”.

Shortly thereafter, Hanson released a video on social media of herself holding an electric cattle prod and advocating its use on climate-change protestors in Brisbane who have been regularly blocking traffic to draw attention to their cause. Now, many people affected by these protests will be infuriated with the protestors, but let’s be clear — peaceful protest is a legitimate exercise of their free speech. So, on the one hand, Hanson is attacking those who protest Alan Jones’s words as restricting his free speech while near-simultaneously trying to violently shut down the free speech of climate change protestors. She can’t have it both ways. Is she for or against free speech? I suspect Hanson is only for free speech that she agrees with.

Laughingly, the video itself breached Twitter’s rules regarding advocating violence. Twitter responded by suspending Hanson’s account and removing the offending tweet. This, of course, led Hanson on a tirade against Twitter allegedly restricting her free speech. So, to summarise, Hanson put out a tweet advocating to shut down the free speech of protesters, Twitter responded by shutting her down and she responded in turn by accusing them of restricting her free speech. Confused yet? Not as confused as Hanson is, I'll bet.

The other point here is that Twitter is a private company and when one sets up an account, one agrees to a set of terms and conditions, which in this case Hanson clearly breached. Twitter’s own interpretation of its T&Cs is fraught and inconsistent and they remain largely unchallengeable. Regular readers will know I have been a victim of Twitter’s vagaries myself, but in this case they got it right.

But wait, there’s more. Pauline Hanson’s cognitive dissonance tour continued with a trip to Uluru. Hanson has been a strong advocate of religious freedom, arguing that religious institutions should have the right to discriminate against other faiths and that schools should have the right to expel gay students and teachers and that their religious beliefs should be protected. She has also, unsurprisingly, come out strongly in support of Israel Folau and his case against Rugby Australia.

Hanson travelled to Uluru with the intention to climb the rock before its traditional owners, the Anangu, close the rock in late October. Their rationale for the ban is that climbing the rock shows disrespect to their sacred site, in other words it breaches their religion. So, Hanson is for religious freedom unless it affects her. She was quite prepared to literally trample the religious beliefs of the Anangu people. She even made a show of discussing her climb with Anangu elders before her ascent, effectively rubbing it in their faces.

As it happens, Hanson made it about 40 metres up the rock before sliding back down “on her butt”. She then gave up and laughably reversed her view on the climb, saying it should be banned for safety reasons. Nothing to do with the wishes of the Anangu people, of course. In summary, she wasn’t fit, nimble or courageous enough to make the climb so nobody else should be able to either. Full disclosure, I have climbed Uluru, albeit 25 years ago. Even then I should have known better. The first 50-100 metres are quite challenging.

The other big news this week was the denial of George Pell’s appeal over his paedophilia conviction. This was always quite likely. The usual conservative commentators, let by Andrew Bolt, have embarked on a vigorous campaign expressing their disbelief. It all largely seems to be based on their perception that “Pell is a good bloke, so he couldn’t be guilty” and that it’s a witch hunt from “the Left”. Like their attacks on climate change against overwhelming scientific evidence to the contrary, these are articles of conservative faith. Pell is innocent despite the evidence, climate change is a fraud despite the evidence.

The other article of conservative faith is that renewable energy cannot meet Australia’s energy needs in the future. Again, there is no scientific basis for this. It’s the vibe of the thing. Justice has been served with Pell. If he appeals to the High Court, he will likely lose (if they even choose to hear the appeal).

Australia would be better served if our Government made policy based on facts and science, not evidence-free ideology and donors’ influence. Our media would do a better job with less opinion and more critical analysis. Is that too much to ask?

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