When speaking truth is a crime

Peter Downie on a war of words

Not long ago, Tasmanian Senator Claire Chandler was in trouble with the law. Her state’s Anti-Discrimination Commissioner found she had potentially breached the Tasmanian Anti-Discrimination Act, where section 17 criminalises what is often called “hate speech.”

It says a “person must not engage in any conduct which offends, humiliates, intimidates, insults or ridicules another person on the basis of an attribute …” including sexual orientation, religious or political belief and gender identity. Intention is irrelevant.

Senator Chandler was required to attend a “conciliation conference” with a man who complained about a newspaper column she wrote in July.

If the Commissioner upheld the man’s complaint, the senator could be forced to make a public apology and pay damages. If she did not agree with the ruling, she could appeal to a tribunal and the courts. But she would have to pay her own legal costs throughout. If all appeals failed and she did not comply with the ruling, she risked jail for contempt of court.

So what were the allegedly illegal words that Senator Chandler said? In effect, she said that women who play contact sports face significant danger from “transwomen.” The latter, being born male, are generally bigger and stronger than those born female. A recent study showed that biological women are up to 30 per cent more at risk of harm when competing against transwomen.

The senator also said: “Women’s sport, women’s toilets and women’s changing rooms are designed for the female sex and should remain that way.” Most Australians would agree.

Tasmania’s Catholic Archbishop Julian Porteous faced a similar situation in 2015. A transwoman lodged a complaint against him, merely because he had distributed a respectful booklet about his church’s teaching on marriage. He incurred significant legal costs before the transwoman dropped the complaint for political reasons.

Years earlier, following the 9/11 Twin Towers attack in New York, two Christian pastors organised a Melbourne church seminar on the Qur’an – including its teaching on jihad. One pastor – Daniel Scot – had studied Islam in detail under Muslim scholars in Pakistan.

Three Australian Muslim converts attended the seminar under cover and later lodged complaints with the Victorian Equal Opportunity Commission. They said they had been offended, insulted and intimidated when Pastor Scot cited passages such as 9:5 – where Allah commands Muslims to “fight and kill the disbelievers wherever you find them.”

In 2004 following a long hearing, the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal found Scot guilty. In 2006 the Supreme Court of Appeal set aside that finding. In 2007 the parties ultimately settled out of court. Total legal costs were more than $1 million.

We need more like Claire Chandler.

Most Australian states now have anti-discrimination laws like those in Tasmania and Victoria. The process is the penalty, even if a complaint is dismissed.

So what happened to Senator Chandler?

She refused to sign a confidentiality agreement that would have prevented her telling the Parliament about the complaints process. Amazingly, the complaint was then dropped.

Senator Chandler is now free, but these unjust laws remain. She has pledged to keep fighting for truth and justice.

We need more like her.

Peter Downie is the National Director of FamilyVoice Australia.