On March 29, pro-choice protestors gave Melbourne City Council (MCC) a clear message: don’t mess with our free speech rights!
Councillor Cathy Oke tabled a bulky tome — nearly 600 statements signed by individuals and organisations, telling the council to uphold the right to protest and stop using local laws against pro-choicers defending the Fertility Control Clinic in East Melbourne against anti-abortion harassment.
From the public gallery, placards demanding “Make Melbourne a free speech city!” underscored the message.
For almost six years, Radical Women has mobilised reproductive rights activists who stand at the gates of the clinic to safeguard the area from anti-abortion harassment.
Every month, the defence line forces a contingent of up to 80 anti-abortion activists from the Helpers of God’s Precious Infants to stand on the other side of Wellington Parade.
Clinic staff, women entering and leaving the clinic, and women just walking down the street are spared the in-your-face intimidation tactics of the anti-abortion movement.
Since opening its doors in 1972, the clinic has been targeted by the ultra-right movement. In 2001, a fanatic walked into the packed waiting room, strapped with explosives, and killed the security guard.
Out of the blue, in February 2010, the MCC stepped in. What did it do? It enforced the local laws against the clinic defenders.
First, the MCC threatened to confiscate our megaphones. Then it sent officers to take photos of the defence line. In October 2010, the MCC then issued a Notice to Comply, alleging that our banner — which says “Free Abortion on Demand NOW!” — breached a law against “erecting an advertising sign or other thing”.
The council claims to respect the right to protest. After months of persistent effort, Radical Women found that the Notice’s threat of a $1,250 fine does not apply in this instance.
However, the council refused to withdraw the compliance notice. So the threat of a fine, sometime in the future, still hangs over our heads.
The clinic defence in East Melbourne is tied to a global battle for women’s right to control our fertility, our bodies and our lives. It’s an escalating battlefront as the economy, which needs women to be its baby machines and cheap labour, sinks ever deeper.
It’s no surprise, then, that abortion rights — which strike at the heart of the profit system — have spawned a fight for free speech.
Don’t let Melbourne City Council, or anyone, muzzle the fight for reproductive justice! Make this a fight to defend everyone’s protest rights!