Leighton Smith: Freedom of speech attacks belong in same grave as CGT

Newstalk ZB,
Publish Date
Saturday, 20 April 2019, 8:49AM
Photo / Getty Images
Photo / Getty Images


Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Israel Folau, Julian Assange, John Pilger, Peter Ridd, Andrew Little, Alan Dershowitz. Seven names from different parts of the world, mostly unknown each to the other, but all connected over one increasingly important issue.

After the attempted coup in Turkey in 2016, President Erdogan ensured that the country had three consecutive years recording the highest number of incarcerated journalists in the world. Along with plenty of other occupations. And he is still at it. Within the last few weeks in Istanbul, police arrested and detained economist Mustafa Sonmez, who had "insulted" the president on Twitter. Something to do with the President not accepting the election of the new mayor of Istanbul. At the end of 2018, 67 journalists were in Turkish jails.

Sonmez was reportedly interrogated for a few hours and released with the possibility of charges to follow. While this may appear irrelevant, it contributes to the general fear of repercussions.

Dr Peter Ridd is an entirely different matter. He is a physics professor who was employed by James Cook University, Townsville, for 40 years. He was sacked in 2018, breaking the university's code of conduct. The build-up to that event is worthy of portrayal.

James Cook University has a well-established marine science division. Like Professor Bob Carter before him, Ridd disagreed with his colleagues over the health of the Great Barrier Reef, particularly with regard to coral bleaching. This has become a big deal in the climate debate. Ridd argued, "contrary to nearly all of his scientific peers, that Reef bleachings were normal periodic events and not necessarily a result of climate change".

In 2016, Ridd emailed a journalist regarding misleading images given to the media. The pictures showed poor quality corals to the exclusion of nearby healthy coral. In other words, the images were not representative of the true state of the Reef. (I recall those photos and knew, thanks to conversations with Bob Carter, what the issues were.) On Tuesday, April 16, the Federal Court in Brisbane issued the following, "The Court rules that the 17 findings made by the university, the two speech directions, the five confidentiality directions, the no satire direction, the censure and the final censure given by the university, and the termination of employment of Professor Ridd by the university, were all unlawful."

Ridd claimed the use of the images was "a dramatic example of how scientific organisations are happy to spin a story for their own purposes".

A penalty hearing will be held at a later date. It will be fascinating to hear what that penalty might be, and it should be substantial.

It is appropriate to note that the court found that the university acted in contradiction to Ridd's guarantee to academic freedom provided by his terms of employment.

Similarly, Israel Folau is enmeshed in a conflict of freedom of speech and employment law. It's enticing to think that because his work is sport, the governing rules might be less onerous. Not likely. For each point raised regarding Folau's going to hell commentary, there is an arguably equalising counterpoint. It seems he is entitled to his religious beliefs. Is he therefore entitled to share them? Is it hate speech? Is it "inconsistent with the values of the sport"? The answers are, yes, no, and what values? Sporting values are assaulted almost every game. That's why there are penalties and suspensions. As Folau has offended before and committed to not do it again, is he in double breach? Ah, the values of multiculturalism, diversity, and inclusiveness wrapped in the tissue paper of political correctness.

"Assange Arrest is an Attack On Journalism, Liberty, Self Government, and Civilisation Itself." That is one of many dramatic headlines. Another, from retired US Senator Ron Paul, "As Long as Assange is in Prison, We are all in Prison."

It was a John Pilger article, "Assange arrest: a warning from history", that took my attention, partly because I don't relate to him. Never have. I sought the thoughts of a retired international journalist whose opinion is usually worthy, knowing his distaste for Pilger. "Fact is that Assange is now a key in a freedom of press and information case that will be epic in the UK. It will take years. Put simply, Assange must not be extradited."

Apparently a bunch of wizened, retired old journos, scattered around the world, last weekend agreed unanimously "no extradition".

Most interesting was Harvard Professor of Law, Alan Dershowitz. He had flown to London in 2012 to advise the Assange defence team on the US attitude to espionage and press freedom. While unable to say what advice he gave, he believed then, as now, that there is no constitutional difference between WikiLeaks and the New York Times. He was referring to the Pentagon Papers.

The connection between all the players above concerns freedom of speech. Andrew Little wants to curb it. All he will do is aggravate matters. Any plans to further attack speech belong in the same grave as the CGT.

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