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In defence of anti-abortion protesters’ right to free speech

Yes, they can be upsetting and distressing. But anti-abortion protesters have as much right to demonstrate outside a clinic as anyone else — that’s what free speech is.

There are always difficult questions on what, if any, should be the limits to free speech. Should people have their right to demonstration taken away if what they are saying is upsetting? Politically difficult? Hateful? Offensive to the vulnerable?

As reported in Tuesday’s Courier-Maila group of anti-abortion protesters have copped verbal abuse from strangers during their 40-day around-the-clock prayer vigil outside a Brisbane abortion clinic. Daniel Edmonds (the only person quoted in the article), a 40 Days for Life spokesman, was involved in the anti-abortion protest, which tried to maintain a 24-hour presence outside the Dr Marie Stopes clinic. The group engaged in “sidewalk counselling” of women seeking to enter the clinic. He told the paper:

”We’re not there to harass people. We’re there to reach out a hand to help people in a desperate situation.”

Demonstrations like this are common outside women’s health clinics and can upset both staff and clients. There are calls to ban such anti-abortion protests. As a long-term feminist — and one who once had an illegal abortion — I have even protested against such demonstrators who create upset and pain. However, I am concerned that banning such demonstrators might also interfere with my and others’ rights to protest against what annoys us politically.

As a long-term protester and change advocate on a range of issues, I am concerned about giving too much power to the state. Despite the frequent gut reaction of wanting to ban behaviour we find offensive, we need to consider the tendency of governments to ban what they don’t like, which offers serious dangers to free speech. When I grew up, these types of powers were used to bans contraceptive advice and leaflets for promoting legal changes relating to homos-xuality. We need to be very careful not to overuse the law to stop offending people.

A February High Court decision ruled preachers’ free speech rights were not being infringed by a new bylaw prohibiting them from preaching in the Adelaide Mall. The ruling shows the state already has some such powers to limit expression. The Advertiser’s Sean Fewster writes:

The court held the bylaw banning street preachers weighed upon a person’s freedom of speech but, crucially, did not infringe upon it. Or, in non-legal speak, the bylaw restricts where you can express yourself but does not stop you outright. No one can stop you from speaking your mind, but they can control when and where you do it for the sake of those around you. The sense in this ruling is obvious.”

The judgment supports free speech but allows restrictions to ensure the protection and safety of others, meaning laws exist to protect people entering abortion clinics. Some protesters will be able to put forward views that could damage vulnerable patients, and there are options for protecting these people without stopping the possibility of vigorous and even sometimes uncivil debates.

However, we all may need to take on broader issues of cultural change. Putting civility back into public and private conversations would undermine the accusation of political correctness that is often used to silence discussion of communal or individual sensitivities. Civility, being aware of the feelings of others, almost became unfashionable. We should challenge those who upset  the vulnerable and show them how to argue vigorously but respectfully.

Courier-Mail readers left the following comments on the article:

I think the poor women who have to use these clinics are under enough pressure as it is and should be left alone.”

Imagine you are having an abortion. Imagine you have thought about what you are going to do, wrestled with it in your mind, and know this is really the only way. It really is the best thing you can do for yourself, the father. And you’re faced with THIS.”

Had those comments been made by passers-by, might that have helped support staff and vulnerable patients while at the same time maintaining civil discourse?

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  • 1
    GF50
    Posted Thursday, 28 March 2013 at 4:05 pm | Permalink

    Agree Eva: courtesy in vigorous discourse and a fine line between a right to free speech and violent intimidation of the civil liberties, and the same freedom of expression for all.
    There is also physical intimidation and actual assault used by these action groups. Now, that is against the law and well beyond a right to free speech even a with the right to vilify and hate included.
    “For their is a vengeful God”

  • 2
    Will
    Posted Thursday, 28 March 2013 at 5:06 pm | Permalink

    Putting civility back into public and private conversations would undermine the accusation of political correctness that is often used to silence discussion of communal or individual sensitivities. Civility, being aware of the feelings of others, almost became unfashionable. We should challenge those who upset the vulnerable and show them how to argue vigorously but respectfully.”

    I think civility rendered as basic etiquette is important. But I get the feeling Cox is invoking a broader sense of civility as a kind of public marketplace of ideas under some imagined Queensbury rules. Whilst that’s is a nice idea in theory, it only works with real partners for dialogue. So you need a tit for tat system to police it, which we don’t have, and so it’s open to gaming the system. You can see countless examples of polite professional centrists who’ve risen to media columnist by spouting false equivalences and worshipping insider savviness, with nothing of real substance to say outside bromides.
    For that reason, I’d much rather talk with someone who is a bit of a dick but who is well-read and constructive engaged with real arguments of substance, with a good faith approach that is aware of the requirements of internal self-consistency, than talk to some think tank sophist who observes all the requirements of civility.

    While I don’t support yelling or boorish behaviour, I think there’s a place for what we might called passionate but restrained stridency.

    As for freedom of expression - there is terrible tendency for people to claim vocal disagreement is a form of censorship and intolerance (see that contrarian fool Brendan O’Neill). It’s true that society should create space for discussion of contested ideas, but it’s an overworked refrain mostly used by people who don’t want to address forceful disagreement using readily available platforms. Their fear ridicule is often about the weakness and unpopularity of their arguments, not a culture of speech repression and orthodoxy.

  • 3
    Posted Thursday, 28 March 2013 at 10:48 pm | Permalink

    Free speech is one thing but there should not be an obligation to be forced to listen to it. That’s what the anti-abortion protesters are about - forcing other people to listen to their speech. They are free to protest in letters to the editor. They are free to hold rallies, to march on parliament, to make documentaries and Youtube videos and whatever else they may like. But to impose your speech on others - to force them to listen to you by blockading their only access to medical services, for example - that is not right.

  • 4
    Adam Itinerant
    Posted Monday, 1 April 2013 at 12:17 pm | Permalink

    Thank you for your article; I wonder if there are groups of civilized Queenslanders offering to support and escort women in to clinics as is common in the US where these people harass women at many facilities.

    If the protesters do cross the line from making their voices heard to harassment of women accessing healthcare, supporting attendees at the clinics and staff will be very important.

    I also wonder if protests moved to their churches, how tolerant of protest they might be.

  • 5
    Gerry Hatrick, OAP
    Posted Monday, 1 April 2013 at 4:54 pm | Permalink

    Except, it would be protesting if they didn’t interfere with the people using the service. Protest in front of a bank, sure, block people from entering the bank, harass them and you’re going to get arrested.
    Arrest the bastards, enough of the America already, let these women do what they need to do in peace.

  • 6
    Shaniq'ua Shardonn'ay
    Posted Tuesday, 2 April 2013 at 3:53 pm | Permalink

    While I support their right to protest I know of no other group who is allowed to do so 24 hours a day, 7 days a week on property they do not own.
    They should have the same rights afforded to Occupy Melbourne who, in the words of Robert Doyle ’ are very selfish, duplicitous people … We had an actual assurance from them during the course of the week from continual negotiations with our officers and police that if we gave them reasonable notice they would pack up and go. We acted in good faith.
    ”They bleat about their rights. What about the rights of the 800,000 people who use the city?”

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