Is ‘political correctness’ threatening freedom of speech?

August 10, 2019
The noisy clamour claiming that “political correctness” is threatening free speech is in fact a campaign to silence others.

"As a result of the cultural-left’s long march through the institutions … political correctness involving identity politics, privileging victimhood and virtue signalling dominate public policy and debate", whined Kevin Donnelly, Senior Research Fellow at the Australian Catholic University, in the Sydney Morning Herald.

"Like never before Free Speech is facing extinction in Australia", exclaimed conservative activist group Advance Australia. "We are at a crossroad. We either stand up and demand a fair go or we get trampled."

But is it really the free speech of conservatives, right-wing radicals and religious fundamentalists that is under attack?

The August 8 decision of the High Court to uphold the sacking of Michaela Banerji, a public servant employed by the Department of Immigration who tweeted anonymously against the treatment of immigration detainees, sent political chills through those of us employed by government. It confirmed the fact that should I, an employee of local government, speak out against the actions of my council, no matter that I do so anonymously and in my own time, may be sacked just as surely as if I were drunk on duty or had punched a councillor.

Head of the School of Political Science and International Studies at the University of Queensland Professor Kath Gelber told Green Left Weekly: "The implications [of the Banerji case] for public employees are considerable because, in this case, the employer went out of their way to discover the identity of the person on Twitter who was using an anonymous handle. So this does restrict employees being able to be openly critical of government policy when they can be identified as working for the government/in the public service.

"I think we are witnessing a high point in the place of the idea of 'free speech' in public discourse, yet contrarily, at the same time, a highly selective approach to free speech by its staunchest advocates.

"So, those who cited free speech as crucial to being able to express opposition to same-sex marriage or to being able to speak your mind in relation to Section 18C [of the Racial Discrimination Act] and racial vilification, tend to be silent when it comes to laws that seriously encroach on free speech in relation to national security, for example."

Even progressive artistic expression is under threat. Waverley Council, in Sydney’s east, voted down a motion on August 6 to remove a mural painted on the Bondi seawall by renowned artist Luke Cornish. The mural depicts 24 heavily-armed Border Force goons, with the slogan "NOT welcome to Bondi". The 24 guards represented the 24 suicides of people in onshore and offshore immigration detention facility since 2010.

Hours after the council voted not to remove the mural, it was defaced with white paint.

Laws against offensive language are also being used to limit the free speech of progressive activists. Peace activist Danny Lim was violently arrested by police at Barangaroo in Sydney on January 11 and fined $500 for refusing to remove a sandwich-board placard that read, "SMILE CVN'T! WHY CVN'T?". 

Police officers defended their actions, arguing that the sign was deeply offensive, even after they swore profusely at Lim and bystanders supporting him during the arrest.

Nevertheless, the free speech of radical conservatives is guaranteed.

The Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) held in Sydney on August 9-10 — an outgrowth of the US conservative establishment conference of the same name — has provided US conservatives such as radical Republican and Trump supporter Judge Jeanine Pirro with a platform to describe "America’s southern border as being under siege by murderers and gangsters", according to the SMH

The CPAC in Sydney was attended by reactionary luminaries, including former Coalition prime minister Tony Abbott; Brexit Party leader Nigel Farage; and former Breitbart News website editor Raheem Kassam, whose visa to Australia Labor home affairs spokesperson Kristina Keneally sought unsuccessfully to have revoked.

The free speech of reactionary commentators such as Andrew Bolt also flourishes unrestricted in the pages of News Corp publications. A documentary detailing the end of Adam Goodes' AFL career, The Final Quarter, shows how Bolt relentlessly pursued Goodes in his columns for the Herald Sun and other newspapers, while Goodes was being actively booed by crowds at AFL games from 2013 to 2015.

Bolt told the ABC: "My criticism of Goodes is very simple: he singled out a 13-year-old girl who should have been protected, not publicly shown, identified and humiliated nationally as the face of Australian racism."

Yet, Goodes had called for the community to support the 13-year-old girl who had racially vilified him. In May 2013, Goodes said: "I just hope that people give the 13-year-old girl the same sort of support, because she needs it, her family needs it, and the people around them need it. 

"It's not a witch-hunt, I don't want people to go after this young girl. We've just got to help educate society better so it doesn't happen again."

Gelber explained: "Free speech is not a free for all; a free for all would mean that the loudest and those with the most power get to speak and be heard, while others are marginalised and excluded from public debate.

"The importance of free speech to democracy means that we need to facilitate as many people as possible to participate in public debate meaningfully. This means regulating speech that is harmful to the extent that it prevents others from also participating."

The marginalised, oppressed and those who speak for them have a right to be heard. 

The noisy clamour, claiming that “political correctness” is threatening free speech, is in fact a campaign to silence them.

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