Australian Civil Liberties Union

Free speech developments in 1998 - An overview


The student editors of the La Trobe University newspaper Rabelais were refused leave to appeal to the High Court in relation to the banning of an article headed The art of shoplifting. The action against the students amounted to political censorship. However the censorship was circumvented by the posting of the article on the Internet, which is a source of information almost impossible to censor. Terry Lane, the President of the Free Speech Committee wrote two excellent articles for the Sunday Age headed More Censorship Silliness and Time the censors got their act together (19/4/98 and 9/8/98) dealing with the Rabelais case. Richard Ackland in an article headed Courts may shoplift free speech (SMH 14/8/98) said that the legal pursuit of the four La Trobe students as far as the High Court is itself acquiring Rabelaisian qualities. The farce ended in March 1999 when a decision was made not to prosecute the student editors.

An attempt by the ABC to prevent the distribution of Your Rights failed due to pressure on the ABC by feature articles in Murdoch (not Fairfax) newspapers, and opposition to the ABC's action by the Free Speech Committee. The posting of material about the action by the ABC on the Internet helped overcome the attempted censorship by the ABC. The Federal Government issued a visa to the Irish Nationalist Gerry Adams, but continued to refuse a visa to the UK historian David Irving. The Free Speech Committee lobbied for free speech for public servants.

The demonization and censorship of Pauline Hanson reached a fever pitch in the months leading up to the Federal election in 1998. Dymock's Booksellers which carried a book by Scott Balson with the title Murder by Media dealing with the censorship of Hanson, indicated, after only three weeks, it would no longer sell the book which can now be obtained through Balson's Website.

The tightening of the administration by film and video laws, especially evident in 1997 after the Port Arthur massacre continued in 1998, with the banning of films such as the 1978 horror movie I spit on your grave. The alliance between some feminists and the pro censorship lobby was the subject of comment in Bad Girls, a book by Catherine Lumby who said that many younger women disagree with campaigns against sexist ads and images in the media and often openly consume pornography themselves. They reject the victim tag for women and have a more complex view of the way power operates in contemporary society. Lumby says that feminist censorship is puritanical and outmoded, not recognizing the ease with which today's young women engaged with the media or indeed the aplomb with which these women practice feminism and manage their sexuality. An article by Patricia Peterson in the Courier Mail (14/8198) headed Pornography's legitimate place in society said that it is not the business of the government or the sisterhood to prevent adult women doing what they please with their bodies.

Terry Lane in an article headed Salo is Rebanned (Sunday Age) said that the film Salo was first banned in 1976, released in 1993, but then rebanned early in 1998 and said that the rebanning represented a regression to the infantilism and paternalism of the past. TV stations, eager to obtain free access to digital TV placated the government and Senator Harradine whose vote in the Senate was often crucial to the Government, by imposing more in-house Censorship on their programs. The proposed appeal against the decision to release the film Lolita based on Vladimir Nabokov's 1955 literary classic and the Government's decision to tackle Internet pornography, phone sex lines, and a students guide to safe sex were also due in part to the need to placate Senator Harradine. Richard Ackland (SMH, 2/10) pointed out the threat to freedom of speech posed by attempts to censor the satirist Pauline Pantsdown, who had made extremely unpleasant satirical references to Pauline Hanson.

The Internet continued to be an avenue to circumvent censorship of material in Rabelais and Your Rights, and the decision in the Lange Case in 1997 continued to provide greater protection for freedom in speech in the media. Electronic Frontiers Australia (EFA) was effective as a pressure group fighting proposals to censor the Internet, and wrote to the HREOC supporting freedom of speech on the Internet for the Adelaide Institute which challenges various aspects of history. EFA posted a paper headed Internet Censorship written by Danny Yee on its Website. EFA condemned the recently announced revision of an international protocol which placed new restrictions on the availability of the privacy enhancing Internet tool of cryptography. EPA also condemned Intel's Pentium III microprocessors which are designed to reduce computer theft and internet fraud, but which had the potential to invade privacy and end anonymity in cyberspace. One critic said Pentium III will turn the internet into the most pervasive surveillance system the world has ever seen and suggested that products of Intel be boycotted.

The laws relating to libel, contempt of court and racial vilification continue to inhibit freedom of speech. People who speak out may receive death threats, may be threatened with loss of employment, may be expelled from organizations, and may be subject to often effective pressure from their friends, family and fellow employees. Distributors of books and magazines have sometimes refused to distribute books with unpopular ideas especially books which challenge what Orwell called control of the past. Ale high cost of posting letters discourages freedom of communication. A well founded belief that phone tapping is widespread inhibits freedom of speech. The Human Rights and Equal Opportunities Commission has discouraged freedom of speech on some issues.

But the main threat to freedom of speech in Australia is the reluctance of most people to seek and find the truth (or some approximation thereof) and to express their views in private and in public. Many people are especially fearful of expressing their views in the media by letters to the editor etc. because of a fear of ridicule and of peer group pressure. Media commentators such as print and radio journalists who are described as fearless and outspoken by their employers, often impose self censorship on themselves and are easily pulled into line through pressure from advertisers, their employers or the media monitoring agencies of pressure groups. The Free Speech Committee has played an important role in exposing censorship by the mainstream media and in fighting for more liberal censorship laws.



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Australian Civil Liberties Union