South Australia recently passed legislation, referred to by some as an “anti-protesting bill”, to increase the penalty for obstructing a public space from a measly $750 and no possibility of jail to $50,000 or 3 months in jail.
The legislation was variously described as a “crack down”, “a threat to our right to protest”, “penalising people for taking part in peaceful protest”, “draconian anti-protest laws”, “deeply alarming” and which “violate South Australians’ basic right to peaceful protest”.
An Amnesty International Australia campaigner expressed her concerns with the bill.
This crackdown on the right to protest means all our ability to fight for human rights and combat the climate crisis are under threat. People shouldn’t face huge fines, and even prison sentences, just for standing up for what’s right.
Premier Peter Malinauskas described the changes as modest, and not varying in intended scope from previous laws.
“There has been no change to protest laws in South Australia. One of the things that I have found rather disconcerting around some of the commentary on this piece of legislation is that somehow, it curtails or diminishes people’s right to protest, which is simply not true.
But we have got a very deliberate action here to affect those people who take to an extreme that has an adverse effect on others in our community, who also have rights that need to be protected.”
SO, should radical leftists, climate alarmists and ironically self-described “anti-fascists” be lawfully permitted to undertake what Malinauskas described as “extreme” protesting?
The answer isn’t as easy as many like to think it is.
For the second day in a row, climate activists from @BlockadeAus have disrupted traffic at the Port of Melbourne to protest 'corporate and institutionally-driven climate change'.— 10 News First Melbourne (@10NewsFirstMelb) June 19, 2023
"The world is pretty wrecked... And people aren't going to stop wrecking it...," @BlockadeAus… pic.twitter.com/sTyihYhNsL
Today was the second day of nationally coordinated protests designed to obstruct economically vital morning peak hour traffic to the ports in Brisbane, Melbourne and Newcastle – but interestingly, not South Australia.
I think it’s a given that a plurality of Australians are fed up with unemployed extremists with poor personal hygiene gluing themselves to roads, abseiling above them and undertaking other innovative mischiefs designed to cause maximum disruption to gain attention from the nation’s news media for their poorly supported policy ideas.
Readers may be aware that in 2018 I attracted the hot anger of extremists who used every uncivilised and unlawful strategy available to them to intimidate people attending private speaking events I organised in five capital cities. In Melbourne, they blocked a national highway outside the function centre and even surrounded charter buses, damaging the panels in attempts to roll the buses over with the elderly, women and children still inside. Police issued me with an invoice for $67,842.50 for their legislatively-obligated services, which I publicly refused to pay and dared them to take me to court. A year later they agreed they had no legal grounds for the invoice.
During the tour I broadcast a video commenting on their disgusting behaviour, and they argued that if I believed in free speech, how dare I deny them the right to “protest”.
And there’s the disagreement I have with even conservatives and libertarians, as well as the domestic terrorists sometimes called “antifa” or “Black Lives Matter™”, and their occasionally less-violent cousins, the climate extremists.
I remember countering at the time that I was fully supportive of my political adversaries enjoying exactly the same free speech rights as me. I welcome them hiring private property, flying in and accommodating world class speakers, providing private security and saying whatever incoherent gibberish they want to. They should have exactly the same free speech rights as everyone else.
But what about the patently bad-faith “protests” which are less concerned with having their say then preventing others from having theirs, or being heard?
It is counter-productive to the objectives of free speech to permit any “counter-protest” in the vicinity of another protest. It is inevitable that one of the groups’ rights to speak and protest will be compromised. Either laws regulating a civil society and promoting a healthy contest of ideas will restrict the options for “counter-protest”, or the law of the jungle will promote a competition of violence where free speech becomes the privilege of only those inclined to violence, and then those best at it.
The worst that can happen if we ban “counter-protests” is that the dissenting villagers armed with pitchforks and torches will have to come back a few hours later, or will have to conduct their angry fist-shaking a few kilometres away. Ferals will be forced to articulate persuasive arguments in a verbal battle of ideas seeking attention for their merits instead of mayhem.
The worst that can happen if we promote absolute free speech in the belief that no government should have any power to regulate speech or protests – a complete lack of boundaries – is that cities and ports can be effectively shut down at the mere whim of capricious individuals or entities, emergency services will choose to take the long way around uncontrolled mobs, protestors and bystanders alike will get injured, public and private property alike will get damaged, and tens of thousands of bystanders will be held to economic ransom – all until the world agrees to revolve around the angriest fringe minorities’ vision of society.
We have seen over and over again the disruption to the peace and safety of people which ensues when one ruthless mob is allowed in the personal space of conservatives and Christians. It’s a Roman circus.
The founding fathers of the United States of America masterfully articulated the limits of freedoms which were themselves necessary to limit the abuses of Government. The First Amendment says:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
By this we see they believed five freedoms belong in the same category: religious liberty, free speech, freedom of the press, the right to peaceful assembly and the right to protest.
Superlatively excellent political thinking beyond the American shores, there can be no honest inference from this document that the writers considered extreme protests something worth legally protecting – and these were the people committed to founding a nation protected from the tyrannies of Europe and imperial England.
They presciently included the profound if simple word “peaceably”, to describe the natural limits on the right to assemble, and that does not simply mean the absence of violence – although that would be a novel restriction if enforced in Australia or America.
What it means is, while you may enjoy the right to speak, petition and protest without penalty, you don’t have the right to a platform or to impose your speech or protest on everybody else. They have a right to peace, safety and to go about their business not bothered by everybody else’s desire to be heard and obeyed.
G. K. Chesteron articulated a similar thought in his book, Orthodoxy.
“There is a thought that stops thought. That is the only thought that ought to be stopped.”
Absolute free speech is actually destructive to free speech. By its lack of order and regulation it perversely incentivises the most violent, the most uncivilised, the most brutish of characters with the least meritorious of ideas to use their freedom as a weapon to cudgel others into fear of using theirs.
That is why I publicly refused to pay Victoria Police for their resources spent on domestic terrorists who hate debates about open borders and cultural post-modernism. Paying the bill, or even quietly not paying it, would have given the domestic terrorists – the people more inclined to violence and intimidation tactics than those sworn to protect law-abiding citizens – a perverse incentive to repeat their vile, lawless and dangerous behaviour every time someone they disagree with wanted to exercise their freedom of speech and peaceful assembly.
The harm principle may be the wisest policy, lying somewhere between tyrannical authoritarianism and destructive anarchy. This issue has been wrestled with for centuries, and we today are not so clever as to be qualified to ignore the great thinkers before us.
Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1785:
“The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others.”
A few years later, France’s National Constituent Assembly, in stark contrast to the preceding, excessively blood-thirsty revolution, declared:
“The exercise of the natural rights of each man has no limits except those which assure to the other members of the society the enjoyment of the same rights.”
John Stuart Mill, in his 1859 classic essay titled On Liberty, argued:
“The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilised community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.”
I agree, and I’m opposed to a very narrow definition of harm to physical violence alone. Certainly financial harm must be included. But as Chesterton observed, its harmful to thought itself to not regulate any behaviour which has the intent or obvious effect of limiting anyone else’s right to free speech.
Now, to be as intellectually honest as possible before resting with a conclusion, we have to consider, what if the shoe is on the other foot?
Would I agree to limiting the speech or right to protest of someone I desperately agreed with, for example someone blocking traffic or initimidating attendees to other events in protest of slavery or genocide or abortion?
Isn’t it worth some inconvenience to a few thousand commuters to save human lives? Isn’t the greater good served by violating the rights of others in a way which doesn’t go as far as physical harm?
The problem with that thinking is, who gets to decide what cause is worthy of transgressing the rights of others? We’ve seen this decade how even good laws can be used against good people by governments arbitrarily declaring an emergency.
Good laws aren’t generally made for minorities and exceptions. They’re made to promote the best average outcome for millions of people. I believe the maximum possible liberty is achieved by sensible regulations with the objective of protecting free speech and the rights to peaceful assembly and protest.
Protest permits already exist, and they’re generally easy to get, including permission to block traffic and march the streets of a CBD with police traffic control at no cost. Pro life Christians and communists/trade unionists do so in most capitals once a year. That’s how it should be – the right to ordered and civilised speech and protest.
The problem is the lack of effective law enforcement when the ferals and domestic terrorists fail to seek permission or cooperate with reasonable boundaries (including private property). They demand certain political and social outcomes – including the silence of people they hate – instead of just the right to themselves speak and peacefully assemble.
Objections will be possible, reasonable and necessary when good laws are abused by bad governments. The last few years have seen peaceful centre-right protests punished and criminalised while radical left protests were protected. Such injustices anger Almighty God and yet, the perpetrators will probably get away with it.
We cannot effectively legislate against governments which will ignore the rule of law when it suits them and make up regulations to licence their abuses when polling says they’ll get away with it. We can only hope to achieve policy to maximise liberty and benefit the whole society in normal times.
Freedom does not suit unvirtuous people, and although virtuous people may thrive for a while with absolute free speech and not unreasonably transgress the rights of others, we are not anywhere close to the majority.
While self-rationalising extremists continue unrestrained and the Lying Harlot Media continue to give them all the attention they demand, the absence of modest limits to free speech and protest rights is the greatest enemy to free speech, peaceful assembly and the right to protest.
Dave Pellowe is a Christian writer & commentator, founder of The Good Sauce, convener of the annual Australian Church And State Summit and host of Good Sauce's weekly The Church And State Show, also syndicated on ADH TV. Since 2016 Dave has undertaken the mission of arming Christians to influence culture through events from Perth to Auckland, videos, podcasts and articles published in multiple journals across Australia and New Zealand. [more]
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