A recent decision of the NSW Supreme Court has applied a rarely used provision in legislation setting up Australian universities to provide a legal remedy for a student penalised for her comments on a controversial issue. In Thiab v Western Sydney University  NSWSC 760 (10 June 2022) Parker J ruled that the actions of Western Sydney University (“WSU”) in penalising the student, Ms Thiab, for comments she had made expressing disagreement with the State’s compulsory vaccination requirements, were unlawful. The case is an interesting example of protection of a student’s freedom of speech through application of the legislation establishing the University, and would apply not only to “political” comments as in this case, but also to religious beliefs.
The recent NSW decision of Passas v Comensoli  NSWCATAP 298 (18 December 2019) provides an example of someone who has been penalised for “homosexual vilification” as a result of comments concerning same-sex marriage. However, it does provide clarification that merely to express disagreement with the introduction of same sex marriage does not amount to such vilification under NSW law.
A student Christian group at the University of Iowa has been reinstated as a registered student organisation by a US Federal District Court Judge, after previously having its status revoked by University authorities. The student group, Business Leaders in Christ (“BLinC”), had been penalised because it would not agree to appoint to its leadership a same-sex attracted student, who said that they would not undertake to comply with the group’s commitment to Biblical sexual values. The University claimed that this was a breach of its Policy on Human Rights, forbidding discrimination on the basis of, among other things, sexual orientation. BLinC claimed, however, that the issue was not the student’s orientation, but their express refusal to modify their behaviour to accord with Biblical norms. The case illustrates a number of important issues in this area.
A recent interesting decision in the State Administrative Tribunal of Western Australia deals with the question whether it is “religious discrimination” for a school to ask students to recite a fortnightly “school creed” containing an optional line mentioning God. The Tribunal decision, Jason Camp on behalf of Charlotte Camp v Director General, Department of Education  WASAT 79 (29 May 2017), sensibly finds that there was no such discrimination.
Note: this post has been updated in July 2017 to note more recent developments.
Astonishingly, the answer to the question posed here, provided by the Queensland Department of Education and Training was: No! In their latest reviews of material used in Special Religious Instruction (SRI) offered in public schools in that State, they assert as follows:
While not explicitly prohibited by the [relevant legislation], nor referenced in the [Departmental published] RI policy statement, the Department expects schools to take appropriate action if aware that students participating in RI are evangelising to students who do not participate in their RI class, given this could adversely affect the school’s ability to provide a safe, supportive and inclusive environment for all students.
(This statement is found both in the Report on the Review of the GodSpace Religious Instruction Materials, March 2017, at para 3.1.1 on p 5, and in the Report on the Review of the ACCESS ministries’ Religious Instruction Materials, Feb 2017, at para 3.1.1 on p 6. Update: the two reviews are also linked on a page headed “Religious instruction policy statement“, which indicates it was updated on 25 May 2017. There seems no doubt that schools would see this as part of authoritative guidance from the Education Department.)
In this post I want to explain why this over-reaching bureaucratic imposition is not justified by the law governing the Department’s activities, and indeed is probably illegal.
Can a reserve member of the Armed Forces make controversial, religiously motivated, political comments on a private website contrary to Defence Force policy? Sadly, the answer provided by the recent decision in Chief of the Defence Force v Gaynor  FCAFC 41 (8 March 2017) is, No, not without having their service terminated.
I mentioned the earlier decision of a single judge of the Federal Court in these proceedings in a previous post over a year ago: see Free speech and religious freedom even for ADF members (Dec 10, 2015). In that earlier decision Buchanan J ruled that Major Bernard Gaynor’s termination was unlawful, because in applying the relevant regulations the Chief of the Defence Force had breached the implied “freedom of political communication” under the Commonwealth Constitution. Now the Full Court of the Federal Court (Perram, Mortimer & Gleeson JJ) has overturned that previous decision and upheld the termination. The decision and the way that the “freedom of political communication” is dealt with have disturbing possible consequences for free speech in Australia on controversial political topics, many of which are raised these days by religious beliefs which run contrary to “orthodox” opinions in society at large.
Two recent news items raised interesting issues of free speech about religion and its legal consequences. One was a comment by Mr Peter FitzSimons; the other a report about an “anti-Muslim” banner being flown at a football game.
1. Peter FitzSimons
Peter FitzSimons, sports and general social commentator, is well known in Australia for his opposition to religion generally. In two articles this week he commented on the decision of a Mormon rugby league footballer, Will Hopoate, not to play or train on Sundays on the basis of his religious convictions about observing the Sabbath: see “Join me on a walk through the minefield of Will Hopoate’s decision not to play NRL on Sundays” (Sydney Morning Herald, 30 March 2016); and “The questions thrown up by Will Hopoate’s decision not to play in the NRL on Sundays” (SMH, 2 April 2016).
An article in today’s press, “Call to suspend hate laws ‘disgraceful’: Gillian Triggs” reports comments of the Australian Human Rights Commission President Gillian Triggs on proposals to protect free speech in the same sex marriage plebiscite, which I commented on yesterday. As a number of the points made in today’s article were not dealt with in yesterday’s blog, I thought it might be helpful to provide a response. Readers should of course read the previous post first, to get the proper context.
On a day when French police are still hunting for the killers who murdered journalists at the Paris office of a satirical magazine, probably because of the magazine’s publication of material mocking Islam and Muhammad, is there anything that can be said about law and religion issues for Australia?
The support expressed for freedom of speech in the wake of this terrible event is real and important. But there are of course important questions about the limits of free speech.
“Freedom of speech”, like any other human right, is never and has never been absolute. We restrict speech where it causes physical harm to people (such as an incorrect health warning on medication, or the classic example of someone who shouts “fire” in a crowded theatre and causes death and injury in the resulting stampede.) We also make some speech unlawful where it incites direct violence against others, or falsely destroys someone’s reputation ( through the law of defamation.)
Here the speech of the magazine in mocking sacred Islamic topics will have led, and foreseeably so, to distress and offence among some Muslim people. Indeed, when the original Danish cartoons were published, there may well have been some who were physically injured in subsequent riots, which again were reasonable predictable. Does that mean we should pass laws making it illegal to cause such offence on the ground of religion? It may be that once the current outrage has subsided to some extent, there will be calls for such laws to be enacted or enforced more vigorously.
In my view, this would be a bad idea. I think that there is some limited scope for so-called “religious anti-vilification” laws, provided however that those laws are carefully crafted to only catch speech which incites hatred or violence against persons of a particular faith. But the law should not prohibit the mere causing of “offence”, nor should it restrict robust debate about the truth or falsehood, or good or bad effects, of religions. I make the case for this in a paper which can be downloaded here.
Those who commit violence in the name of offence should be caught and dealt with according to law. It may never be possible to prevent such actions altogether. But we should not restrict freedom of speech in discussing religion because of a fear of such response.