Freedom and the Commissioner

There have been quite a few recent cases raising questions around free speech and freedom of the press. Here are some thoughts, not all final.

First up, the question, raised by the cases of Peter Ridd and Israel Folau of whether employers can discipline or sack workers for their views on a range of issues.

Ridd is an academic at JCU who has expressed (often in intemperate terms) the (wrong and harmful) view that the damage to the Great Barrier Reef from climate change has been exaggerated. JCU sacked him, but his dismissal was found by the Federal Circuit Court of Australia to be unlawful.

This was a straightforward finding under industrial law, which accords no special status to academics. But there are good reasons why universities should adhere to a stronger standard, embodied in the notion of academic freedom. As the NTEU vice-president Andrew Bonnell said it’s clear that JCU breached its commitment to academic freedom.

The Folau case is much trickier. In a sense Folau’s religious views aren’t that unusual. Most Christian denominations hold, at least officially, that all non-Christians and all Christians who hold heretical beliefs will go to hell[1], along with Christians who die in mortal sin, which accounts for nearly everybody. But, as Brian Houston of Hillsong Church (not someone I expected to quote with approval) points out, telling people they are going to hell is not helpful either for religious tolerance or to convert them to the truth as you may see it.

What makes this case difficult is that Folau’s job is, effectively, one of marketing the Australian Rugby League so that it can attract sponsors (notably, in this case, Qantas). Whether or not Folau has a case against the ARL, no one can force the sponsors to renew the contracts, or, for that matter, the fans to show up (I don’t know many rugby fans, so this may or may not be an issue).

As is almost invariably the case, former Freedom Commissioner and IPA alumnus Tim Wilson comes out of this looking bad. Back in 2015, there was a similar case in which Scott McIntyre, an SBS sports commentator, expressed views about Anzac Day that were offensive in their content and even more in the way they were expressed on Twitter Even though McIntyre had nothing like Folau’s public profile, he was sacked. Wilson then “Freedom Commissioner” wrote that, since McIntyre was not legally prevented from speaking, there was no free speech issue

SBS simply decided it didn’t want to be associated with him. No one is guaranteed a job. Employers are not compelled to put up with behaviour that harms their public reputation.”

Now, Wilson is defending Folau against ‘censorship‘, even though, on the views he has previously stated, there can be no question of censorship in the absence of government action.

I wasted a lot of time on Twitter a few years ago, trying to pin Wilson down on this very question. I can now discern his position: if you say something acceptable to conservatives, it’s free speech, otherwise you can take your chances with the boss.

fn1. Just to tie things up neatly, denying the existence of hell is a heresy.

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