Australia cracks down on free speech during gay marriage plebiscite

The two week long, mail-in vote to decide the future of gay marriage in Australia is underway following a brief delay for a court challenge.
The measure is widely expected to pass, but there’s a major battle taking place on social media and in competing ad campaigns to try to sway voters at the last minute. This has led to some heated rhetoric and harsh words being exchanged at times.


So how is Australia responding to this sort of friction? They’re cracking down on political speech, stiffening penalties for their already robust hate-speech laws. (Reuters)

The alarming volume of hate-speech during Australia’s ballot over whether to legalize same-sex marriage spurred parliament to pass emergency legislation on Wednesday to outlaw opponents spewing their vitriol while the vote was in progress.

Australia began a non-compulsory postal vote on Tuesday that will determine whether it becomes the 25th country to legalize same-sex marriage…

Until voting ends on November 7, anyone found guilty of intimidation, or threats to cause harm on the basis of the sexual orientation, gender identity, intersex status – that is people who believe themselves to be neither male or female – or the religious convictions of someone will be liable to fines of A$12,500 (over $10,000) and a court injunction.

At first glance you might think that some of these precautions are reasonable, if not common sense. After all, threats against the life or safety of others aren’t even tolerated in the United States. But we’re not just talking about death threats here. You can also qualify for prosecution for “intimidation” which has a rather vague definition. If your argument for one side or the other makes another person feel intimidated or “unsafe” (this should be reminding you of Berkeley about now) then you can be charged as well.


This is nothing new for any of the states in Australia and they’ve been building up a stash of these laws on the books for a while now. New South Wales layered on some hate speech laws back in 2015 and their Attorney General went on record talking about how dangerous it can be for people to just go around, you know… saying things. (The Guardian, emphasis added)

“We cannot allow violent race hate speech to fan flames of division and tear our community apart,” the state’s attorney general Gabrielle Upton said on Monday.

“Make no mistake, words are dangerous weapons for race hate preachers and violent extremists. Change is needed to disarm them and to safeguard our inclusive, pluralist and harmonious community.”

Ah, yes. Words themselves are, “dangerous weapons.” This is precisely the sort of lawmaking you get without a First Amendment.

Shortly after that law passed they managed to secure their inclusive, pluralist, harmonious community by bringing charges against a radical Imam who went on a public rant calling for a jihad against the Jews. That’s an easy one for people to get behind because jihad is very real, but in America even that might be protected as speech depending on the circumstances.

In this case the end result doesn’t matter that much to me because I’m not really opposed to gay marriage. (Of course, the Australian government isn’t any more willing to admit that they shouldn’t be in the business of marriage than our own government, so the drama will have to play out yet again.) What’s of far more concern is the easy, breezy way they were able to crack down even further on “wrong thinking” with only a few days notice.


This is yet another example of why we should never take our First Amendment rights for granted because they remain relatively unique. Australia is a modern, western nation which we count a strong and steady ally. But just as with most of Europe and the rest of the world, their freedoms are more limited than ours. If they get it into their heads to outlaw any sort of speech or demonstrative activity they can do so and those spouting “dangerous words” may wind up paying a heft fine or even going to jail.

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