Should we be concerned about campaigns to ban speakers we don’t like?

Sherri Tenpenny has had her Sydney and Melbourne shows cancelled after sustained backlash

Sherri Tenpenny has had her Sydney and Melbourne shows cancelled after sustained backlash

Almost all Australian venues have now cancelled the sessions of American osteopathic doctor and anti-vaccination campaigner Sherri Tenpenny.

Concern was raised over Dr Tenpenny's upcoming Birth Babies and Beyond tour by Australian pro-vaccination groups. Venues set to hold Tenpenny's seminars were petitioned and subsequently responded to pressure. Immigration Minister Peter Dutton is yet to respond to calls to deny Dr Tenpenny's visa.

Last year, a similar campaign was successful against 'pickup artist', Julien Blanc. #takedownjulienblanc earned eventual success through concern over Blanc's promotion of views that were abusive towards women. Upon cancelling Blanc's visa, then Immigration Minister Scott Morrison said, 'This guy wasn't pushing forward political ideas, he was putting a view that was derogatory to women and that's just something that our values abhor in this country.'

Also last year, a talk appallingly entitled 'Honour Killings are Morally Justified' was cancelled by the Festival of Dangerous Ideas at the Sydney Opera House following swift public backlash.


Public voice can be powerful.

Opponents of Dr Tenpenny have cited a comparison between Blanc's and Tenpenny's cases. As Peter Tierney, a member of a vaccine advocacy group argues, 'If someone like Julien Blanc can have his visa stripped, I think it could be equally applied to Tenpenny.'

Organiser of Dr Tenpenny's tour, Stephanie Messenger, said of the cancellations, 'It is very sad ... They don't believe in freedom of speech. ' Civil Liberties Australia said denying Tenpenny's right to speak would set a dangerous precedent, while her critics argued their right to impede the spread of misinformation.

But what exactly is freedom of speech, and how is it monitored?

In the US, the right to freedom of speech is protected by the First Amendment of the United States Constitution. Essentially, anyone has a right to say anything they want and not be curtailed—no matter how disagreeable—unless it contains true threats, obscenity, or child pornography, amongst other prohibitions.

Yet in Australia, we don't specifically have the same law.

According to the Australian Attorney-General's Department, Australians have a right to 'freedom of opinion and expression'. This means we have a right to hold opinions without interference or restriction. We also have a right to freely express those opinions across any medium—although again, within reason.

The technical difference between freedom of expression in Australia and freedom of speech in the US seems incredibly slim, but a difference exists nonetheless.

In 2011, when commentator Andrew Bolt was found to have broken the law under the Racial Discrimination Act section 18C, Bolt said it was a 'terrible day for free speech in this country.' In 2014, Attorney-General George Brandis pushed for amendments to the Racial Discrimination Act that would ensure what happened to Bolt would 'never happen again', famously insisting upon Australian's 'rights to be bigots'. At the time, Prime Minister Abbott said, '… we also want this country to be a nation where freedom of speech is enjoyed. And sometimes … free speech will be speech which upsets people, which offends people.'

So where exactly do the restrictions to 'freedom of opinion and expression' come into play? What is the difference between 'upsetting or offending', as Abbott suggested we should still be able to do, and saying something so threatening the speaker must be silenced?

And who gets to make that decision?

Australian Attorney-General's Department advises, 'When working on a measure that restricts freedom of expression, you should ask yourself whether … it impinges on freedom of expression to a greater degree than is necessary and whether there are less restrictive means of achieving the desired ends.' (Emphasis added).

In Julien Blanc's case, authorities responding to protest decided that kicking Blanc out of the country was a necessary level of restriction. As Article 20 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights states, 'Any advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence shall be prohibited by law.'

Yet Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights also states, 'Everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media...'  (Emphasis added.)

In order words, provided the information one seeks to express doesn't fall into those prohibitions, an individual is free to say it—and others have a right to hear it.

For instance, The World Congress of Families was held in Melbourne last year; an event that promotes, amongst other things, anti-gay, anti-abortion, anti-divorce, and anti-contraception messages. It was supported by several senior political figures including Senator Eric Abetz who linked abortion to breast cancer. While negative publicity and protests surrounded the event, there were no calls to have the entire congress's visas revoked.

So ultimately, when we appeal to authorities against voices that alarm us, we put into their hands an interpretation of this ambiguous right to freedom.

Humans will always disagree over something. Inevitably a grey area will cloud what we consider offensive but debatable, or so threatening it must be stopped.

Should we celebrate the success of these campaigns? Or should we be wary of a burgeoning enthusiasm for trying to silence the topics we find objectionable?

If we don't like something another has to say, when is silencing the best alternative to putting forth a compelling rebuttal?

Of the tragic Paris terror attacks, actress Tina Fey said, 'We cannot back down from free speech.'

So where is the line in the sand?


Kim Lock is a mother of two and the author of Peace, Love and Khaki Socks (MidnightSun Publishing, 2013). Her second novel is currently under consideration. Twitter: @KimRLock