Warrane College UNSW | college accommodation for students at UNSW
Warrane College UNSW | college accommodation for students at UNSW

Do we really have freedom of speech in modern-day Australia?

Lyle Shelton giving his talk after formal dinner

Freedom of speech: one would think it’s a given in Australia. But according to Lyle Shelton, Managing Director of the Australian Christian Lobby (ACL), it’s something that still needs to be fought for.

Upon addressing the boys at Warrane’s formal dinner on Wednesday 10 August, Shelton spoke of freedom of speech and how political correctness meant that the Christian opinion on issues is often dismissed without fair debate. And the funny thing is, as he pointed out, most good things that make for a good and functioning society can be traced back to Christianity!

American founding itself is an example: it was recognised that to have self-government and democracy and freedom, society needed virtue, which allows people to govern themselves, and virtues come from religion. And really, the 10 Commandments are the very basis of national legal codes! Attacking Christianity therefore is like hacking away at the very roots of civilisation.

Voltaire: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”

Shelton started by speaking of Voltaire, French philosopher and advocate for freedom of speech. Even though Voltaire was a great critic of the Catholic Church and postulated a whole lot of philosophies that were a challenge to it, he at least was prepared to defend to the death the Church’s right to state their views. Compare this to modern-day Australia, where Archbishop Julian Porteous was facing an anti-discrimination claim in Tasmania for distributing a booklet that talked about the Catholic Church’s view on marriage (‘Don’t mess with marriage’).

While the archbishop was simply putting forward his opinion and exercising his right to freedom of expression, he was accused of spreading hate speech – something that the ACL also faces regularly. Shelton said that this should be called as it is: modern-day intolerance. It really shows the danger of state-based anti-discrimination laws being weaponised.

“Here we [the ACL] are,” said Shelton, “in a supposedly free society, wanting to hold a conference, wanting to engage in public discourse around issues that are in the media – issues that are before the parliament – and yet our opponents are trying to shut us down all the time. Is this free speech? Is this tolerance? I think that’s a question we all have to ask ourselves.”

Freedom of speech and double standards

When it comes to Christian views, Shelton spoke about how there are obvious double standards at play. It’s evident in the way that Crikey’s political editor was able to call him a “nauseating piece of filth” on Twitter for his Christian opinions,  something that wouldn’t be so well-received if attacking any other religion. It’s also obvious in the fact that anyone contesting the Safe Schools campaign is written off as a bigot, even though the material (which teach that gender is fluid) is genuinely of concern to most parents.

“What do we do about this, if we do care about freedom of speech and freedom of religion?” said Shelton. “20 years ago, when I was your age, I never would have thought I’d be having these conversations. I grew up in a society that valued freedom of speech and freedom of religion, and the ability to disagree agreeably if we didn’t agree with things. But that’s not what we see now – we see the blunt stick of a law being used to silence people in public debates here in Australia. We see intolerance globally… and that, to me, is a distressing place to be in…I think it’s a trend that needs to be reversed. And it’s a trend that is continuing because good people aren’t speaking.”

A pope, a president and a preacher who stuck to their beliefs

“There are three people from history who greatly inspired me – who were probably in worse situations than we were, but spoke up and saw a difference,” said Shelton. “They are a pope, a president and a preacher.”

Pope John Paul II became a priest in Nazi Germany, being brave enough to continue his studies in secret and ever determined not to bow to the totalitarian regime. His mantra of speaking true to culture helped him to resist the lies of the state, and to help others to do so as well.

In 1987, President Ronald Reagan stood outside the Brandenburg Gate in Germany and denounced the Soviet Union, calling for them to “tear down this wall”. He stuck to his opinion and spoke out for the truth, even against all advice from his foreign policy experts.

Shelton’s third inspiring example was Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a Lutheran theologian. When Hitler introduced a clause which demanded that no-one of Jewish ethnicity could hold positions of leadership, Dietrich stood up for the Lutheran pastors who had converted from Judaism and then left to set up an underground church. And although he was put in a concentration camp and hung on Hitler’s orders, a witness remembered how he went to his death with joy because he stuck to his beliefs.

“I believe that people who stand up to tyranny, to oppression, and totalitarianism, wherever it manifests itself, will find themselves on the right side of history,” said Shelton. “Because I do believe our God has created human creatures to be free in his image, and that free speech is a precious gift of democracy, and freedom of religion is a precious gift, And these are things that sadly I think we need to fight for in 21st-century Australia.”

Having the courage to speak up

“For some reason we’ve got ourselves into this pickle,” said Shelton, “where if you don’t line up with the politically correct views of the day, then you’re a moral and intellectual pigmy, and the debate’s over… I think that’s a real problem… There are all these lies that are being spoken into our culture – we know they’re lies and we can demonstrate it through science, through rationale, through history.”

He encouraged the boys to take the lead – “I think part of the malaise in Australia is the lack of courage among leaders to stand up against some of this sort of stuff…I think it’s going to take a lot of courage for future generations. And that’s my challenge to you guys tonight, if you are people who believe in freedom.”

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