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25 September 2014
by Graham Preston

Free speech under threat: a case study in double standards

What would you think if police were to arrest a person who was peacefully standing on a public footpath in Australia while holding a sign quoting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights?
Well, it did happen, back in March of this year. Probably you heard all about it because of the great outcry raised by the guardians of civil liberties at such an attack on freedom of speech and conscience in this country.
Just to make things quite clear, yes, the arrest did happen, but, no, there was no concern at all expressed by civil libertarians.

So, what is the story?
Firstly, the sign the person was holding had written on the front of it, "Everyone has the right to life, Article 3, Universal Declaration of Human Rights". Well, who could have a problem with that? Black people, white people, Jews, atheists, Callithumpians, tall people, short people, etc, every human being has the right to life.
Indeed, the Preamble of the Declaration states, "recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world." Australia is signatory to the document.

What could the problem have been then?
On the back of the sign was printed, "Every child has the right to life, Article 6, Convention on the Rights of the Child". That is not saying anything different to the quote from the Declaration so that could hardly have been the problem. Besides, Australia is signatory to the Convention on the Rights of the Child, too.

Neither of those statements seems to provide grounds for arresting someone. How could peacefully promoting these documents in public be an offence? Moreover, Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states, "Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this freedom includes the right to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers."

Hmm. What was going on?
In the person's other hand they were holding a poster which had the caption, "8 week pre-born baby" printed below an enlarged photograph of an unharmed baby in the womb. Such photos are not unusual with similar images appearing from time to time in, amongst other places, advertising campaigns for various things, magazine and newspaper articles, and in books showing the development of human life. Given the relatively commonplace nature of the picture it could hardly have warranted the arrest of someone.

Each on their own - the quotes and the photo - would seem to be no problem. But for some people once the photo of the preborn baby is placed alongside the quotes from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Convention on the Rights of the Child then there is an issue.

Putting the picture and words side by side suggests that the child in the womb does/should fall under the umbrella of protection of the Declaration and the Convention. Is that an unreasonable suggestion to put forward?

As noted above, the Declaration says that "recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world". As well, Article 1 of the Convention says that "a child means every human being below the age of eighteen years " and the Convention also explicitly states in the Preamble that, "the child, by reason of his physical and mental immaturity, needs special safeguards and care, including appropriate legal protection, before as well as after birth."

What is the problem with accepting the natural reading of these two documents and including unborn children within the circle of human rights?

That of course is the issue here: if the Declaration and the Convention give protection to the right to life of the child in the womb, that cannot leave room for the child's life to be deliberately ended by abortion. The Declaration and the Convention then appear to be ant-abortion documents and in certain public places in Australia, it is not permitted to say anything that can be construed as being opposed to abortion.

Since the passing of the Reproductive Health (Terminations of Pregnancy) Act 2013 in Tasmania late last year it became an offense, with very significant penalties – fines of up to $9 750 and/or twelve months jail – for someone to protest within 150m of a place where abortions are done.

Back on March 4, I was standing on a street corner in Hobart holding the afore-mentioned signs within 150m of a place where abortions are done. The police came and ordered me to move on, I refused, and was arrested.

The next day I stood within 150m of another place where abortions are done. This time I had a sign which read, "Should human rights apply to all human beings?" on the front, and, "Are unborn babies human beings?" on the back. (Can it be a crime just to ask questions?) I also held the enlarged photo of the preborn baby. I was again arrested. The hearing of the charges was set down for 4-5 September.

On September 2, less than 48 hours before the hearing was due, I was informed by the police that no evidence would be presented against me – the charges were being dropped. In view of that decision, on September 6 and on the next four working days I stood for most of each day with the same signs near one of the places which does abortions (the other place had closed down in the interim). The first few days the police came and spoke to me but gave me no direction to move on.

When the police came under pressure (from Greens and Labor politicians) for not arresting me again, the official response was to say that nothing would be done until after a review was completed - the conclusion of that review has apparently not been arrived at even now.

So what does all this have to tell us about the state of freedom of speech and conscience in Australia? Does the fact that the police dropped the charges and failed to carry out another arrest suggest that things are okay after all? Hardly, for while the law remains in place with its draconian penalties, freedom of speech and conscience continue to be under serious threat.

Suppression of freedom of speech and conscience for some, is suppression for all. It is amazing that some who would see themselves as staunch defenders of such freedoms fail to see that in this instance.

Abortion is not an act that requires unique protection. People in good conscience should be allowed to peacefully express their views about it in all public places (what does "universal" mean?), just as they should be allowed to do so about any other matter. The Tasmanian law must be repealed.