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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).

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Another obtuse article gets published about #MTRsues

In The Sydney Morning Herald we see an article by Cathy Sherry, an academic from the University of New Wales, writing in defence of Melinda Tankard Reist.

By now, I am sick of this issue - much as it has raised many interesting questions that need more debate. There are other things that I'd rather be posting about, but I can't forebear commenting on this particular piece, as it so totally wrongheaded and dangerous. You'd think, to read it, that Melinda Tankard Reist was the one being bullied and silenced.

In fact, she is by far the more powerful person in the dispute she is having with Jennifer Wilson. One is a public figure with enormous political and media support behind her and easy access to the mainstream media. The other - i.e. Wilson - is a relatively unknown blogger and occasional writer of online op.ed pieces. If this is a David and Goliath situation, Melinda Tankard Reist is no Daniel, and Wilson is far from looking like Goliath.

And let's not forget that Tankard Reist is the one who invoked defamation law to try to control what her opponent can say. There are many other ways she could have handled things. These included simply ignoring the obscure blog post that she objected to. Alternatively, she could have used her ample access to the media to reply to Wilson's views on their merits ... or she could have allowed her various cronies to do so.

There's not much doubt who is the bully in this case, and who is the underdog being bullied. Nor is there much doubt that people like Cathy Sherry enable bullying by rushing to the defence of the bully (it's remarkable how often this happens!). Sherry doesn't even mention that the dispute blew up in public when Tankard Reist's lawyers sent Wilson a letter of demand, with a threat of a defamation action, over content that their client objected to on Wilson's blog.

Perhaps I could find something to agree with in Sherry's article if it were not so fundamentally wrong about the key issues and the power differential that's involved. Yes ... I, too, don't like orthodoxies. I, too, dislike debate that takes the form of crude personal attacks (I'm sure that Tankard Reist has received some of these, but of course so has Wilson). There are interesting discussions to be had about how people should conduct themselves in public debate. But sending a letter of demand with a threat of suing for defamation is, at best, a heavyhanded response, and the kind of thing that we should avoid. Except in extreme situations, the civil courts are not the place to settle such disputes between people taking part in public debate on matters of government policy.

It doesn't look like this issue is going away any time soon. I wish Tankard Reist would simply withdraw any threat of taking legal action, and the immediate issue would be resolved. But there's no sign, at the moment, of any such resolution. I guess we must stay tuned and be prepared to help Wilson if we can, should the legal side of it proceed that far.


Verbose Stoic said...

Unless the article has changed, Sherry didn't seem to mention Wilson at all, except perhaps as a reference to "unaccountable bloggers", so it might well be better to evaluate her comments as comments about the sort of people she actually directly references, who are claiming that MTR is not a feminist -- and I suppose by implication not worth listening to -- because she's pro-life.

So it might seem so completely wrongheaded to you because she isn't talking about the same thing you are. She might well be completely on your side when it comes to lawsuits and, perhaps, even the specific Wilson case.

Russell Blackford said...

The unaccountable bloggers is pretty clearly a reference to Wilson (possibly among others). The way this is playing out in Australia, it's pretty clear.

Verbose Stoic said...

Considering that that is a simple aside in her longer column where she calls out two other people by name where the power differential, it seems, is far closer, it's hard to see how you can reasonably claim that she's misrepresenting the issue between MTR and Wilson. In order to get Sherry saying ANYTHING about the Wilson case specifically, you have to do a lot of reading in. I definitely think your comments here are far too strong than are justified by the text. At absolute worst, she would disagree with you that the real threat to free speech is the lawsuit, and she never actually says anything like that. The most reasonable interpretation that allows a link to Wilson is one in which she says that statements like those Wilson made cannot be unaccountable because that itself has a chilling effect on free speech, demonstrated for her by personal experience

So, it seems more reasonable that you and she disagree, but I'm not sure about what. That does not justify a claim that her article is totally wrongheaded and dangerous.

Legal Eagle said...

My comment on Sherry's piece:

I endorse the comment: "Finally, silencing ideas stymies progress. The essence of any functioning democracy is the ability to get as many ideas on the table as possible and then thrash them out without fear or favour."

However, I do not know whether you are aware of this, but the reason why Melinda Tankard-Reist was in the news was because she threatened to issue defamation proceedings against a female blogger who had queried her religious views in the wake of the Good Weekend profile. Tankard-Reist did not engage her interlocutor in debate - her solicitors simply sent a legal letter demanding an apology and retraction of all posts mentioning her on the blog concerned. Therefore, I don't think one can just point the finger at those who criticise Tankard-Reist for being a pro-life feminist and say that her position is illegitimate - in fairness, one must also note that Tankard-Reist has shown a willingness to silence debate. A plague on all their houses, perhaps?

Anonymous said...

Well I'm sorry Legal Eagle, but from Wilson's own post we now read that the solicitors' letter stated:

a) the claim that MTR is a Baptist is false
b) the statement that MTR is "deceptive and duplicitous" is "false and unwarranted, and seriously defamatory"

When I tried to politely point out this distinction on Dr Wilson's own latest post I got:

"Please don’t make me tell you what to do with your polite suggestion. It isn’t pretty. I don’t delete opinions unless they are abusive. But if you think for one second I’m going to respond to this rubbish think again."

I've got to say that unfortunately I'm now losing some of the sympathy I had for Dr Wilson's 'wider issues'. And if this be some sort of 'line in the sand' for free speech issues, then I'd say that the line is pretty wobbly, and that it seems etched in quicksand.


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