Has freedom of speech become a myth?

By Giorgina McKay | @ggmckay11

Wallabies rugby star Israel Folau has come under fire recently for anti-gay comments published on his Instagram account.

In response to a question, Mr Folau said “gay people need to repent their sins and turn to God, or they would go to HELL.”

The athlete then followed up the post by citing a Bible verse, suggesting he was being ‘persecuted for righteousness’ sake’.

His comments sparked widespread criticism, including that of fellow rugby player Brad Weber and gay referee Nigel Owens.

“When you’re in a position of privilege like that, there comes a responsibility with the way you convey those beliefs,” Mr Owens said. 

“For me it’s trying to get those people to understand, look, me being gay is not a choice.”

Mr Owens publicly ‘came out’ in 2007 after attempting suicide at 24, having struggled with his sexuality.

“There are young people out there taking their own lives, feeling like I did, and that’s what I wish people would think about and the way they convey their opinions and I wish they would try and understand that everybody’s different,” Mr Owens said.

“Judge me and other gay people, judge them on the content of their character, not their sexuality.”

Mr Folau meet with Rugby Australia Chief Executive Officer Raelene Castle and New South Wales Rugby Chief Executive Andrew Hore on Tuesday to discuss the backlash and appropriate following procedures.

On Monday night, Mr Folau also wrote a column for PlayersVoice, detailing the meeting’s events and his response to the recent criticism.

“During the meeting I told them it was never my intention to hurt anyone with the Instagram comment, but that I could never shy away from who I am, or what I believe,” Mr Folau said.

“They explained their position and talked about external pressure from the media, sponsors and different parts of the community, which I understand.

“After we’d all talked, I told Raelene if she felt the situation had become untenable—that I was hurting Rugby Australia, its sponsors and the Australian rugby community to such a degree that things couldn’t be worked through—I would walk away from my contract, immediately.

“At no stage over the past two weeks have I wanted that to happen.”

His proposal to leave the league stems partly from his belief that his faith is more important than his career.

“I would like to explain to you what I believe in, how I arrived at these beliefs and why I will not compromise my faith in Jesus Christ, which is the cornerstone of every single thing in my life,” Mr Folau wrote.

“I do not know the person who asked the question, but that didn’t matter. I believed he was looking for guidance and I answered him honestly and from the heart. I know a lot of people will find that difficult to understand, but I believe the Bible is the truth and sometimes the truth can be difficult to hear.”

Ultimately Rugby Australia decided not to impose sanctions on Mr Folau.

Fairfax Media reported Ms Castle was satisfied with the ‘respectful’ way in which the Wallabies’ player clarified his remarks in the column posted Monday night.

“In his article, Israel clearly articulated his religious beliefs and why his faith is important to him and has provided context behind his social media comment,” Ms Castle said.

“In his own words, Israel said that he did not intend to upset people intentionally or bring hurt to the game. We accept Israel’s position.

“Rugby Australia will use this experience as an opportunity to remind all employees of their obligation to use social media in a respectful way.”

The real question here, however, is not whether Mr Folau’s comments were acceptable or not, but rather, what role does free speech play in our modern society?

Contrary to belief, Australia doesn’t have a specific bill of rights that allows citizens to have explicit freedom of speech.

Australia is a signatory to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which preserves freedom of opinion and expression under Article 19.

However, the Australian government has no legal obligation to uphold this treaty.

The treaty does state that infringement of Article 19 would lead to international condemnation, but given Australia’s blasé attitude towards the condemnation of our treatment of asylum seekers, Australia could just as well disregard the treaty with little repercussion.

Where does that leave freedom of speech then?

Although Australians don’t necessarily have explicit freedom of speech, people still use the right to freedom of speech as a justifiable argument.

The Australian government, for the most part, allows this to happen as they too use the same argument to express their controversial opinions—as is the case with politicians like Pauline Hanson.

However, the issue also comes down to a matter of circumstance.

In Mr Falou’s case, the controversial comments were posted online, which is a tricky field to navigate given Australia’s internet laws.

Legally under Australia’s Criminal Code Act 1995 it is an offence to use the internet, social media or a telephone to menace, harass or cause offence.

The maximum penalty for this offence is three years imprisonment of a $30,000 fine.

However, in order for the offence to be considering a breach against the act, the perpetrator has to be continuously performing the offence.

Additionally, Mr Falou’s comments were not directed at one specific individual, meaning that any legal action undertaken would most likely be void.

A case might have been made if Rugby Australia hadn’t already passed their verdict.

Under Rugby Australia’s code of conduct for players, it is states that players must “treat everyone equally, fairly and with dignity regardless of gender or gender identity, sexual orientation, etc”.

It also states that players must use social media appropriately.

In this case, the best option in these circumstances would be for people to report these type of comments or individuals to the website.

Instagram does hold the right to remove any inappropriate or potentially harming content from an account, and users can also report or flag individuals.

In extreme cases, social media moguls can suspend or remove accounts from their website.

Where does this leave us now then?

Mr Falou may have been able to make these comments under the guise of free speech, but that doesn’t mean it is right.

Professor Katharine Gelber explains the oppositional argument in her article for ABC News.

“Did Folau have the right to express his comments? Yes, he did. Free speech is alive and well in Australia,” Professor Gelber said.

“Does he have the right to express those comments without consequences from those who are hurt or disappointed by such a clear expression of prejudice from a role model for young people everywhere? No.

“Those who are fortunate enough to enjoy greater scope of freedom of speech, whose speech is more likely to reach a wide audience and carry more moral weight than that of ordinary members of the community, ought to be aware of this responsibility and be careful not to abuse it.”

Indeed, our society considers athletes like Mr Falou to be predominant public figures and role models for young children.

This means they automatically have an obligation and responsibility to contemplate what they publicly broadcast, and to be aware of the impact their words can have.

Freedom of speech may be considered a right, but it’s one that should be treated with caution and consideration.

 

Image Courtesy of Bloomberg

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