The same-sex marriage debate affects many critical areas of our society, including one on which civilised societies are based: free speech.
When Julian Porteous – the Catholic archbishop of Tasmania – published a document last year on the topic of marriage, the media backlash was incredible. What is more, he was also cited by the Anti-Discrimination Commissioner for possibly breaching the Anti-Discrimination Act.
Writing in The Mercury, the bishop explained that the prohibition on conduct which “offends” under Section 17(1) of the Anti-Discrimination Act is too vague. He argued that while including this was well-intentioned, it inadvertently restricted freedom of speech:
“Offence is a vague notion that refers to a feeling, a subjective emotional state where one is “annoyed or upset” by something that has been said or done. While the inclusion of the word offence was motivated by good intentions to ensure fair treatment of all, it has set an unreasonable standard by which to limit speech.”
He pointed out that a proposal to create an “exemption” for statements made for religious purposes does not protect ordinary Australians:
“It is important to make clear this is not just an issue of freedom of religion, but an issue of freedom of speech, respectful speech. While the proposed change will protect those acting for religious purposes, presumably those acting in a formal capacity for a particular religious community, it will not protect the more basic freedom of speech of those who do not act in this capacity or indeed those who are not religious. The individual wanting to express a position on marriage, say to a work colleague or someone they just met, remains unprotected from potential action”.
Porteous quoted the renowned author Salman Rushdie:
“The idea that any kind of free society can be constructed in which people will never be offended or insulted is absurd. So too is the notion that people should have the right to call on the law to defend them against being offended or insulted. A fundamental decision needs to be made: do we want to live in a free society or not? Democracy is not a tea party where people sit around making polite conversation. In democracies people get extremely upset with each other. They argue vehemently against each other’s positions.”
Irrespective of your political, religious or cultural persuasion, the article is an insightful read on the contentious topic of hate speech and free speech. It also makes it clear that any protections that might be offered in a post- same-sex marriage Australia will only apply to a handful of religious leaders, and not the average Australian. The truth is, whenever any law or act banning or restricting speech is enforced, free speech is in jeopardy.
As Australia continues to wrestle with the marriage debate and all the impending consequences, Australian citizens must be told the truth: in the name of “anti-discrimination” and “diversity”, Australians’ freedom of speech will be undermined.