Herald Sun (Melbourne), Wed 29 May 1996, p18

Ominous new threat to free speech

Paul Gray

Free speech has come under renewed threat because of a little-noticed decision by the Australian Broadcasting Authority.

In an ominous echo of moves to restrict free speech via racial hate laws, the ABA has ruled that radio station 3RRR breached acceptable standards on religious vilification.

The unprecedented case centred on criticisms of the Church of Scientology by ex-Scientologist Cyril Vosper on 3RRR's The Liars' Club program last year.

Among other criticisms, Vosper likened Scientology to an extremist political regime and claimed it had destroyed his family.

After complaints by the Church of Scientology, the ABA ruled that The Liars' Club was in breach of Radio Program Standard 3, which forbids radio licensees to transmit a program which "is likely to incite or perpetuate hatred against (or) gratuitously vilifies any person or group on the basis of ethnicity, nationality, race, gender, sexual preference, religion or physical or mental disability".

Soon after this, 3RRR took The Liars' Club off air. There are conflicting claims by station management and the program's presenter over whether the ABA ruling was the reason for this.

In parliament last week, ALP MHR Kelvin Thomson called on Communications Minister Richard Alston to investigate the ABA ruling.

"The ABA's decision establishes a precedent which, if not addressed, could effectively shackle broadcasting in this country," he said. "Professed religious convictions should not become a smokescreen for avoiding criticism or public scrutiny."

The implications of this case go further than broadcasting. It is a further disturbing sign of willingness by an authority to restrict free speech to protect special-interest groups.

The same thing was seen last year, when bodies such as the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission publicly backed moves to bring in a federal racial vilification law.

On the other hand, the 3RRR case also has significant implications for the right of Australians publicly to criticise a religion.

This particular case involves the Church of Scientology, a group with a strong history of claiming religious persecution when criticised.

This is despite the fact there is still controversy over whether it is strictly speaking a religion at all. In America, for example, the group was slammed in a 1991 Time magazine cover story with the allegation of being "a hugely profitable global racket that survives by intimidating members and critics in a Mafia-like manner".

In 1993, former Scientologist Robert Vaughn Young, who claimed to have handled PR for Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard for 20 years, described it as an "empire" and a "labyrinth of corporate shells".

Scientologists reject such criticisms, citing a 1983 Australian High Court ruling that Scientology could be considered a religion.

Whether these allegations are true does not affect the essential principle at stake in the ABA's decision. That is, why should any religion be specially protected from tough - even extreme - criticism?

Take the cases involving Catholic priests convicted of pedophilia. No doubt many Catholics feel grieved that their church has been smeared because of the activities of a few.

Yet it is generally accepted that it would be an outrage if the church were allowed to use media regulations to stop criticism.

Supporters of anti-vilification laws often claim the media must balance free speech rights with a sense of responsibility towards groups in the community.

But our law already protects individuals against libel and slander. That is as much of "balance" as any group needs.

[Press articles on Scientology]