Liberals’ ‘free speech’ crusade is an attack on right to protest

Liberal Education Minister Dan Tehan has launched an anti-protest crusade in the name of “free speech” on campuses.

In late September, he called on University Vice Chancellors from the elite Group of Eight universities to charge students for security costs if they wanted to protest on campus.

The proposal came after students at Sydney Uni protested a Liberal Club “Fake Rape Crisis Tour” event featuring Bettina Arndt. Arndt is an appalling right-wing ideologue who promotes the idea that there is no rape crisis on campus.

This is despite the Human Rights Commission report last August that revealed the alarming extent of sexual harassment and assault at universities.

Tehan postured as a defender of free speech to justify his attack on protesters, saying:

“We’ve seen some examples where groups have tried to prevent forums taking place, and I think what we have to ensure is that where that is happening, there is an ability—especially on our university campuses—for those events to go ahead”.

Right-wing Herald Sun columnist Andrew Bolt also joined the chorus, railing against “thuggery from the Left“, despite Arndt’s Sydney Uni event going ahead as planned.

Donald Trump’s Presidency in the US has given confidence to racists, sexists and homophobes the world over. Women face very real consequences if the kind of sexism Trump champions is further entrenched.

Liberal PM Scott Morrison was eager to give Trump’s politics legitimacy, inviting him to visit Australia in November. And his government has backed Bettina Arndt’s disgraceful “free speech” to the hilt. This only serves to underline why the likes of Arndt should be met with disruptive mass protests wherever they rear their heads. Their brand of viciously sexist politics shouldn’t go unchallenged on campus or anywhere else.

Whose free speech?

The free speech of bigots and right-wingers isn’t under threat.

Bettina Ardnt is a columnist for Murdoch’s The Australian, the only national daily paper in the country. Andrew Bolt gets to use the Herald Sun as a megaphone for his views—one of Australia’s most highly circulated tabloids. Not only that, but he also has a Fox News style TV show on Sky and a radio program.

The likes of Arndt and Bolt get a huge platform because they spout the kind of right-wing views that corporate media bosses approve of. Australia has one of the most concentrated media markets in the world. Murdoch’s News Limited controls 70 per cent of newspaper circulation alone. There are only three commercial TV stations in each city.

All the big media outlets are owned by the rich and promote views that defend their basic interests. Even the ABC is desperate to show it is “balanced” by only permitting a narrow range of political opinions and excluding overly left-wing views.

The grossly unequal system of media ownership in capitalist society means there is no real freedom of speech.

The Liberals also have zero reservations about squashing freedom of speech when it suits them.

Espionage laws passed this year give the government the power to prosecute and imprison whistle-blowers who “prejudice national security” with harsher penalties than before. Anti-terror laws passed in 2015 threaten journalists who report on “special intelligence operations” with up to ten years’ jail.

Workers who take stopwork action to rally over political issues are breaking the laws that ban strikes.

It is the freedom of speech of the working class and ordinary people that needs to be defended, not the freedom of speech for bosses, corporations and right-wing ideologues.

No free speech for fascists

The hypocrisy of the Liberals’ cry for free speech, and the massively unequal access to media platforms, doesn’t mean we are for denying free speech to all right-wing speakers on principle.

We are for empowering workers and the oppressed to protest and disrupt appearances by the rich and powerful.

But the “no platform” approach—refusing to let groups speak or gather publicly- is non-negotiable only in the case of fascists. Fascists aim to build a street movement that can use physical violence to attack minorities, trade unionists and the left with the ultimate goal of installing a dictatorship. The far right is a growing threat, particularly in Europe. Many of these groups have fascist organisations at their core.

The Football Lads Alliance in the UK is one such organisation. It has organised thousands to take to the streets on anti-Muslim marches. They have done Nazi salutes and physically attacked trade unionists and minorities. Strong counter mobilisations that block their marches and deny them the “freedom” to go on racist rampages have been an absolute necessity. It is extremely dangerous to accept the idea of universal freedom of speech in the face of such a threat.

By Adam Adelpour


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