Free speech and human rights in Australia

Stream: Panel 35 - Human Rights & Democracy: Human Rights & Democracy Panel 1: The Democracy – Human Rights Nexus 
Date: Tuesday, 27 September 2016
Time: 2.00 pm – 3.30 pm


In recent years, free speech debates have featured unusually prominently in public debate in Australia. While some of these did not result in a legislative narrowing of free speech rights –an attempt to revise the definition of discrimination in federal law in 2012/13; and an attempt in 2014 to amend federal anti-vilification law – others did. Significant restrictions on freedom of speech have been enacted in the context of federal counter-terrorism legislation (2014/15), asylum seeker policy (2015), and anti-protest laws in Tasmania (2015), and in a current attempt in Western Australia to do the same. The last half decade, therefore, has seen unprecedented debate about the role of freedom of speech in Australian democracy. In this paper I will consider these events through the lens of a capabilities approach-informed analysis of the role of free speech; namely an understanding of the constitutive role of speech in individuals’ lives, and through that its role in democratic deliberation and legitimation. This approach attends to the conditions required at an individual level for democratic legitimation to occur at a social level. I will argue that the new restrictions on free speech in Australia place democratic processes of deliberation and legitimation at risk.


Katharine Gelber (Presenter), University of Queensland
Kath Gelber's expertise is in freedom of speech and speech regulation. She has recently published 'Free Speech After 9/11' (Oxford UP, 2016) and articles in Law and Society Review, Political Studies, Contemporary Political Theory, Melbourne University Law Review, Review of International Studies, and the Australian Journal of Human Rights. In 2014 she and Luke McNamara were awarded the Mayer journal article prize by the Australian Political Studies Association for the best article in the Australian Journal of Political Science, an article on the ‘Bolt case’. In 2011 she was awarded the PEN Keneally award for contributions to freedom of expression.