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Free speech under threat: a case study in double standards

By Graham Preston - posted Thursday, 25 September 2014

What would you think if police were to arrest a person who was peacefully standing on a public footpath in Australia while holding a sign quoting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights?

Well, it did happen, back in March of this year. Probably you heard all about it because of the great outcry raised by the guardians of civil liberties at such an attack on freedom of speech and conscience in this country.

Just to make things quite clear, yes, the arrest did happen, but, no, there was no concern at all expressed by civil libertarians.


So, what is the story?

Firstly, the sign the person was holding had written on the front of it, "Everyone has the right to life, Article 3, Universal Declaration of Human Rights". Well, who could have a problem with that? Black people, white people, Jews, atheists, Callithumpians, tall people, short people, etc, every human being has the right to life.

Indeed, the Preamble of the Declaration states, "recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world." Australia is signatory to the document.

What could the problem have been then?

On the back of the sign was printed, "Every child has the right to life, Article 6, Convention on the Rights of the Child". That is not saying anything different to the quote from the Declaration so that could hardly have been the problem. Besides, Australia is signatory to the Convention on the Rights of the Child, too.

Neither of those statements seems to provide grounds for arresting someone. How could peacefully promoting these documents in public be an offence? Moreover, Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states, "Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this freedom includes the right to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers."


Hmm. What was going on?

In the person's other hand they were holding a poster which had the caption, "8 week pre-born baby" printed below an enlarged photograph of an unharmed baby in the womb. Such photos are not unusual with similar images appearing from time to time in, amongst other places, advertising campaigns for various things, magazine and newspaper articles, and in books showing the development of human life. Given the relatively commonplace nature of the picture it could hardly have warranted the arrest of someone.

Each on their own - the quotes and the photo - would seem to be no problem. But for some people once the photo of the preborn baby is placed alongside the quotes from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Convention on the Rights of the Child then there is an issue.

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About the Author

Graham Preston is an illustrator and a student of life.

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