Freedom of Speech?

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by Rizzen
Last updated 5 years ago

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Freedom of Speech?

Australia’s laws against racial discrimination place a limit on our right of free speech. It is illegal in Australia to publicly use language that is likely to offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate anyone because of that person’s race, colour or national or ethnic origin. Very few people have actually been brought to court under this law, but it sends a strong message to the community about using racially abusive language. In May 2013, a 13-year-old girl was removed from an AFL match at the Melbourne Cricket Ground for racially abusing Aboriginal footballer Adam Goodes.


For us to be able to exercise our democratic rights in a free society, we must have the right to express our opinions without risk of punishment. In many countries around the world, and throughout history, this right has not always existed. In some medieval societies, anyone who publicly criticised the king or the church could be executed. Even today, there are many countries where freedom of speech is very limited or non-existent, and people are punished for publicly expressing their opinions:*In Russia in February 2012, members of a female punk–rock group known as Pussy Riot staged a performance in a cathedral in Moscow. The women were protesting against the policies of the Russian government and its close relationship with the Russian Orthodox Church. They were arrested and charged with ‘hooliganism’, and imprisoned. Their imprisonment led to widespread protests in Russia and other countries. Eventually they were pardoned by the Russian Parliament and released from prison in December 2013. Their case is seen as an example of the lack of freedom of speech in Russia.*In North Korea, it is illegal to say or do anything that criticises the government or is seen to insult the country’s leader, Kim Jong-un. It was recently reported that a man was thrown into prison for wiping up a spilt drink with a sheet of newspaper. Someone noticed that the newspaper featured a photo of Kim Jong-un and reported the man, who was imprisoned for insulting the leader.

The importance of freedom of speech

1.2 Freedom of speech

Our right to freedom of speech in Australia is said to be limited by the ‘bounds of law’. The word ‘bounds’ is an old-fashioned form of the word ‘boundaries’. We understand boundaries to be limits on what we may do in any set of circumstances. The limits or boundaries on our freedom of speech are imposed by laws that prohibit (among other things) hate speech, bullying, defamation and obscenity.

Limits on our freedom of speech

In recent years, state governments have acted to protect people from bullying, particularly in the workplace. In February 2010, four men and the company they worked for were fined a total of $335 000 for bullying a young waitress who later killed herself. The waitress, Brodie Panlock, committed suicide after months of bullying at the café where she worked. Much of the bullying involved name-calling and using offensive language towards Ms Panlock, who was 19 years old. Following the publicity surrounding Brodie Panlock’s death, the Victorian state government brought in a new law against workplace bullying. It allows for workplace bullies to be prosecuted through the criminal law, and for prison sentences of up to ten years for those found guilty. The new law has become known as ‘Brodie’s law’. Some other state governments have now also acted to make bullying language illegal.


Hate Speech

Defamation occurs when one person writes or says something likely to damage the reputation of another person. Any communicated material that harms the reputation of another person is said to be ‘defamatory’. If you believe someone has defamed you, you can take legal action (that is, you can sue that person). For your legal action to be successful, you have to prove the following:The defamatory material was published or communicated to someone other than yourself. It is not defamatory if the person communicates it only to you, and no-one else sees or hears it. It would be defamatory, though, if someone published it on his or her Facebook page, or anywhere likely to be read by other people.It has to be clear that it is you as an individual the person is referring to. If someone said that members of your sports team were cheats, you could not sue them unless they clearly identified you in person.There has to be some clear damage to your reputation. If the material is likely to prevent you getting a particular job, or in some other way can be seen to disadvantage you, you may have a good legal case.The material must be untrue. If someone communicates material about you that can be proven to be true, then that person has a strong defence if you try to take legal action for defamation. In this case, a court may rule that no defamation has occurred.The law relating to defamation puts a limit on free speech but it also protects innocent people from having their reputations ruined publicly. It demonstrates that any right to freedom of speech imposes an obligation on all of us to use that right responsibly.


Freedom of speech is also limited by the need for all written and spoken material to conform to reasonable community standards. Laws against obscenity are designed to protect these standards. Obscenity laws vary by state and territory, but generally cover cases such as the following:Offensive language. If you are caught swearing loudly in public, you can be charged with using offensive language in a public place.Sexually explicit or violent material. A number of laws govern the publication or display of such material. In some cases, film and television classification authorities may place restrictions on violent or sexually explicit material by giving it an ‘R 18+’ classification. Some other material (such as child pornography) is banned completely, and people can be prosecuted and imprisoned for possessing it. Recently there has been a lot of publicity relating to the practice of ‘sexting’ by teenagers. This is seen as child pornography and has serious consequences for anyone caught participating in the practice.Despite these limits, freedom of speech plays a significant role in Australia’s democracy. Our right of free speech allows the open exchange of political ideas and policies. This means that when we vote to elect representatives to parliament, we should be fully informed about the promises and policies of all candidates. No-one can restrict the rights of political parties and their candidates from getting their message out to voters.


1) In what ways do laws against racial discrimination put limits on our right of free speech?2) Explain why freedom of speech is important in supporting democracy in Australia.3)What are the likely consequences of each of the following actions:a) A group of employees in a factory engages in name-calling and using insulting language towards a workmate, who becomes afraid to go to work as a result.b) A young man lies about his ex-girlfriend on his Facebook page, saying that she lost her job because she stole money from her employer. When the girlfriend applies for another job, she is unsuccessful because the prospective employer believes she is a thief.c) A passenger on a bus begins harassing a family of African migrants, using racist language and telling them to ‘go back where they came from’.


Classifications- making choices about what we choose to view.



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