Err on the side of caution

Roving eyes came to an abrupt halt. Headline of the news report arrested my attention. The phrase ‘Catholic gut’ was influential enough to persuade me to read the news report. Half-way through the report, the reporter had established that the ClubsNSW’s CEO was fired on the grounds of religious vilification. I am not sure if I should deem the recent occurrence as sensational as regarded by the media; however, the news sparked my curiosity propelling me to research on ‘Vilification’ which the dictionary defines as “abusively disparaging speech or writing”. In the Anti-discrimination Act 1977 No. 48, NSW Legislation defines vilification as an unlawful public act which could either be any form of communication or conduct or distribution of matter that promotes hatred or that which severely ridicules a person or group of persons on the grounds of race, homosexuality, transgender, and HIV/AIDS. According to Division 3 of the aforementioned act, 38 O, it is unlawful for a registered club to indulge in direct personal attacks against a member or non-member. In addition to this, Anti-discrimination Amendment Bill 2021, aimed at making it unlawful to vilify a person or group of persons on the grounds of a specific religious belief or affiliation. Immediate consequence ensued as the above-mentioned phrase articulated by the accused was interpreted by most as an offensive utterance to the people of that faith across the state.

My intention is not to debate whether poetic justice has been restored but to focus on ‘Freedom of Speech’ in Australia. From hearsay I have gathered that Australians have no freedom of speech or that it is a restrictive right. I must admit that until I accessed reliable sources of information, I regarded Australia as an unfair country that deprived its citizens and residents the right to express one’s true feelings or opinion about everything under the sky which according to me and General Comment 34 forms the basis of a democratic society and a humanitarian right that must be protected. However, accessing ‘Free Speech 2014 Symposium’ changed my negative perspective about the country’s limitations on the freedom of speech. AHRC President Professor Gillian Trigg’s observation that, “. . . a useful way to think about laws that regulate freedom of speech is that they are designed to avoid harm or to assist in attaining a legitimate and important social goal. If we focus on what the freedom is for, it is easier to consider whether a regulation is a permissible limit on the freedom” enhanced my understanding of Article 19.3 and the need for such limitations or restrictions.

A TED talk on the topic that I accidentally stumbled on during one of my internet surfing adventures, shed light on the connections between ‘Freedom of Speech’ and ‘Offense’ and the difference between speaking against a person and speaking against a belief. In this day and age where practical jokes or jokes at workplaces and public places could lead to disastrous consequences when misunderstood, it is better to err on the side of caution and follow a policy of anti-vilification.   

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