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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. Author of FREEDOM OF RELIGION AND THE SECULAR STATE (2012), HUMANITY ENHANCED (2014), and THE MYSTERY OF MORAL AUTHORITY (2016).

Friday, October 27, 2006

Putting the (police) boot into freedom of speech

Strictly speaking, there is no right to free speech unless granted by law - talk of moral "rights" is nonsense on stilts, as Jeremy Bentham memorably said. There is, however, a well-recognised principle in modern societies that goverments should be very reluctant to interfere with the speech or other expression of their citizens. In most jurisdictions, this is supported by constitutional provisions that impose severe restrictions on government power to control what citizens may say. Australia is somewhat backward in that regard, but at least the High Court has found an implied constitutional limitation on the ability of the state and federal parliaments to legislate to restrict political speech.

Unfortunately, we still see governments attempting to control what we can say about matters of public importance, as with the religious vilification laws in Victoria that I have to keep in mind every time I blog on matters relating to religion. This legislation needs to be repealed now.

To add insult to injury, the Federal Police Commissioner, Mick Keelty, apparently took the opportunity yesterday to attack the media for reporting on the outrageous claims by a senior Muslim cleric that women are largely responsible when they are raped. As reported in the media, Keelty played down Sheik Hilali's comments, suggesting that "many in the community say offensive things" and apparently took exception to the Australian's reporting of the mufti's views.

For a leading police figure to be attacking the freedom of the press to report (seemingly accurately) on these issues is unforgivable. Of course, Keelty can say whatever he wants - in his role as a private citizen. I have no wish to censor him. In fact, I don't even wish to censor the views of Sheik Hilali; let him say what he likes, as long as the rest of us are free to deplore it in the strongest words we can muster. But Keelty should realise that there is something frightening about a person in his position putting the police boot into freedom of speech.

Keelty has gone too far. If he believes that newspapers should be muzzled in reporting these things, let him say so as a private citizen, not while wearing the mantle of a police commissioner. I'm really struggling here trying to imagine what he was thinking. Let's get it straight: in a society such as Australia's, the police are there to enforce the law - to protect us against violence and criminality - not to express personal opinions about what journalists should write or what citizens should be able to read in the news. If the police commissioner wants to take that role, he ought to find another job.

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