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Free speech versus hate speech

New laws have been passed by Federal Parliament that outlaw terrorism advocacy, with further legislation mooted to ban organisations that ‘nurture extremism’, but does banning prevent the spread of extremism or give it more air?

The Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, flagged a new round of counter-terrorism legislation to target groups that “nurture extremism” in a parliamentary speech this month.

"There ought to be more than just legal constraints to speech for any ethical member of society."

– Mohamad Tabaa, Australian-Muslim writer and academic

One organisation in particular was in the PM’s sights: Hizb Ut-Tahrir, a radical organisation that has a primary agenda of establishing a Caliphate and that has been accused of preaching and inciting hate. The organisation has already been banned in several countries. 

The organisation hit the headlines last year after one of its representatives was pulled from line-up of speakers at Sydney’s “Festival of Dangerous Ideas”.

Hizb Ut-Tahrir surfaced again when it organised protests in Lakemba against depictions of Islam’s Prophet by the French satirical magazine, Charlie Hebdo, after the assassination of magazine staff in Paris this January.  

In response to the Prime Minister’s threat to ban them, the organisation issued a press release stating that such a ban would “have little to do with security, and much more to do with silencing dissent.”   

The group’s leader, Ismail al-Wahwah, warned the Prime Minister in an open letter: “You will be successful in banning ideas and their spread when you are able to prevent the flow of air itself."  

In an interview with The Point Magazine, Human Rights Commissioner Tim Wilson has previously said that "(Hizb ut-Tahrir) say deeply unsavoury things that I disagree with, but it doesn't mean they should be censored." 

Leading constitutional lawyer and academic, Dr George Williams at UNSW, agrees. “The law should not be subjecting people to criminal charges for their speech even if we fundamentally disagree with it – it creates martyrs of people and legitimises what they say,” he said.

“It’s dangerous if politicians feel they can decide what people can and can’t say, particularly if it leads to 10-year jail terms.”

Dr Williams said that banning such speech and organisations merely send them underground and make it hard to be located and policed.

Much extremist speech occurs in “underground, unofficial youth groups. They’re doing it under the radar,” according to Miriam Makki, a youth leader at the Australian Multicultural Foundation and a recent law graduate. 

They are “shunned from mosques and moved away from the community and are setting up hate pages and groups.”

Nick O’Brien, associate professor at Charles Sturt University, told The Point Magazine, “People are allowed to support who they want, but when that’s a terrorist organisation, to my mind that would be wrong... We live in a fairly free society, but when you have a kid holding up someone’s head, a journo’s head being sawn off, that’s abhorrent to 99 percent of society.” 

Understandings of free speech

The Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) held a symposium on free speech last year, in which the president of the AHRC, Gillian Triggs, said Australia performed relatively well internationally in regards to free speech and the High Court held an implied right to free speech.

She noted, however, that “without constitutional guarantees, the measure of our freedom of expression has become that which remains after all the laws that restrict the right have been taken into account.”

One such constraint is Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act that outlaws public communication – including cartoons – that is “reasonably likely, in all circumstances, to offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate another person or group,” if “the act is done because of the race, colour, or national or ethnic origin” of an individual or a group.

However, 18C does not apply to the vilification of particular religions.

Nor should it, according to Dr Augusto Zimmerman, of Murdoch University’s School of Law. “Open and free discourse about religious ideas ought to be encouraged not discouraged.... One should expect the laws of democratic societies to be much less prepared to protect criticism of voluntary life choices, compared to unchangeable attributes of an individual’s birth,” he said at the AHRC symposium.

But Muslim writer Mohamad Tabaa, who is researching a PhD at the University of Melbourne into how Muslims can speak in a contemporary, secular environment, said “there ought to be more than just legal constraints to speech for any ethical member of society,” particularly if actions set out “to specifically mock and anger those people.”

“Many young Muslims have concerns about a double standard when it comes to free speech. On the one hand, defilements of the Prophet are defended – even by those who despise them... But when it comes to controversial speech being uttered by Muslims, the previously limitless contours of free speech show their ideologically constrained boundaries.”

“The version of free speech we’ve inherited is quite anti-authority – hence it’s anti-religion,” he said.

Dissecting free speech is a robust and open conversation worth having, according to Dr Hass Dellal, of the Australian Multicultural Foundation. “Freedom of speech comes with moral limits,” he said.

These “moral limits” come with “respecting common values” and people “have the right to express their concerns about issues provided it doesn’t incite hatred, violence, or cause harm”.

He said there has to be “glue that keeps us all together” and we are Australian citizens “first and foremost” and with that we enjoy “the freedom of speech, culture and religion.”

The Point

New laws have been mooted to ban organisations that "nurture extremism"

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