Freedom of speech not something to hide behind

PUT up or shut up.

The challenge was thrown across the parliamentary chamber more than once this week as values and politics clashed.

The idea of freedom of speech was central to the fierce debate: first, over whether Catholic schools should be able to preference students of that faith above others.

Secondly, on comments made by Greens leader and minister Nick McKim in support of anti-forestry protesters.

Freedom of speech refers to an inherent human right to express opinion publicly without fear of censorship or punishment.

A clause that would have allowed faith-based schools to discriminate in favour of students of that faith, and against others, when there was competition for enrolment was included in state government amendments to the Anti- Discrimination Act.

Labor felt that was a reasonable compromise between two polar- opposite and long-held views.

The Greens opposed the clause, arguing it would entrench and legalise discrimination.

The Liberal Party opposed it because it didn't go far enough - and pushed for a general exemption.

Read Hansard of the debate that raged for more than three hours to get an insight into particular MHAs and our state's party politics.

At one point, opposition education spokesman Michael Ferguson accused Greens Bass MHA Kim Booth of wasting his allocated speech time by raising invalid points of order: "This is outrageous ... the party preaches love and tolerance and free speech, but they will not allow anybody to have their say".

He classed the Greens opposition as an example of an ideological obsession against non-government schools.

In turn, Mr Wightman accused Mr Ferguson of waging his own ideological war in the chamber.

"Literacy is important to me and there are things on that (Liberal) side that are placed higher than literacy of Tasmanian students. The shame is not on me, the shame is on you," he said.

Leader of opposition business Rene Hidding painted an analogy of an Islamic school being forced to accept hundreds of Christians under the proposed clause and said the reverse would also be true, meaning people could "force their way into that school, which would diminish the faith of those people in that school".

He also accused Labor and Greens MHAs of stifling free speech.

"We have to listen to your stuff, so you should just shut up and listen to our stuff as well. That is the way it works."

Mr McKim saw the impasse as being about politics, not values.

"Otherwise, why would (Liberal MHAs) have voted against something that went part of the way to what they state their preferred position would be ... because you think you can peel votes primarily off the Labor Party (here)."

End result: everyone got their say, but no one got their way.

The freedom of speech debate grew in fervour after Mr McKim compared recent protests at timber processor Ta Ann Tasmania to civil rights campaigners Nelson Mandela, Mahatma Gandhi and Rosa Parks.

He said he would always back people's right to protest, which was often contrary to the law of the day.

The opposition said the comments on protests that resulted in arrests and trespass charges should result in Mr McKim's sacking.

Once again, Premier Lara Giddings had to argue that her cabinet minister had a right to express his opinion even if she didn't agree with it - and desperately try to switch focus on to the Liberals' "wrecking game".

(Note: her earlier claim of wealthy benefactors funding such protests drew a demand for proof with Mr Booth calling on her to "put up or shut up", which was later withdrawn.)

The last word: Everyone has a right to express their opinion and, in the case of Mr McKim, the long- standing position of their party.

But freedom of speech can't be used in defence against anything. No one has a right to mislead the public, imply or state things that are untrue or wilfully damage the reputation of others. Enough said.

Dinah Arndt

Dinah Arndt


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