Why is a beheading threat okay but a cartoon comment not?

Why is a beheading threat okay but a cartoon comment not?

At a protest in Sydney’s Hyde Park in 2012, a 14-year-old boy carried a sign that said “Behead all those who insult the Prophet”.

That same boy is alleged by police to have been on the verge of a ghastly act of terrorism last Wednesday. Together with a 16-year-old boy, he was arrested last week outside an Islamic prayer centre in Bankstown, in Sydney’s southwest.

Last week, too, we learned that a cartoon by The Australian’s Bill Leak is being investigated by the Human Rights Commission for breaching section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act. These two seemingly unrelated events tell a story of how free speech has gone awry in Australia.

Under section 20D of the NSW Anti-Discrimination Act, it is a crime to incite violence against others on the basis of race. Enacted in 1989, there has not been a single prosecution. Not when the spiritual leader of Hizb ut-Tahrir in Australia, Ismail al-Wahwah, called for “jihad against the Jews” and called Jews a “cancerous ­tumour” that had to be “uprooted” and destroyed. Or when his violent words were uploaded to YouTube, accessible to young boys such as those arrested last week.

It has been obvious for years that section 20D needs to be reformed to ensure prosecutions of those who use words to incite violence. The arrest of the two boys last week was the 11th imminent attack that has been prevented in Australia. Four of them have been in NSW. While the Turnbull government is intent on passing the fifth tranche of federal anti-terrorism laws, the NSW Baird government has done nothing to address an entirely ineffective law that is meant to prohibit words that spur young boys to buy bayonets, pledge allegiance to Islamic State and kill infidels on the streets of Sydney.

There should be no right to free expression of murder; giving a young boy a sign to behead infidels ought to be a crime.

Reforming section 20D won’t stop the radicalisation of young boys but it is a start in getting the right balance on free speech and it goes to the most central role of government to keep its citizens safe. It is incomprehensible then that promises to reform section 20D by NSW Attorney-General Gabrielle Upton stand empty.

The freedom scales will remain out of kilter so long as a NSW anti-discrimination law stands impotent against those who use words to incite violence, yet a federal anti-discrimination law swings into fast and furious action when someone decides to be insulted by a cartoon.

After Leak published a cartoon that satirised family dysfunction in indigenous communities, Race Discrimination Commissioner Tim Soutphommasane touted for business, requested complaints and prejudiced his ability to consider complaints impartially.

Meanwhile the boss of the Australian Human Rights Commission Gillian Triggs, who could dismiss silly complaints, runs amok with a law premised on someone, somewhere, deciding that their feelings have been hurt by a picture or some words.

There is something dreadfully wrong with the application of free speech laws in this nation when young students at Queensland University of Technology are dragged into a three-year legal quagmire arising from a few words on Facebook.

After the students were evicted from an indigenous computer lab by indigenous woman Cindy Prior for not having the right skin colour, one wrote this on Facebook: “Just got kicked out of unsigned indigenous computer room. QUT stopping segregation with segregation.”

Prior chose to be offended by words aimed not at her but directed at QUT, claims the trauma has rendered her unable to work for three years, and the legal system condones this anti-free speech farce.

While words that incite violence go unchallenged, an edifice of opposition has built up in Western culture around words that merely offend. For thousands of years, Ovid’s narrative poem Metamorphoses has been studied as an epic tale of the creation of the world, drawing on tales from Greek mythology, exploring lust and love, violence and power. The poem inspired Chaucer, Shakespeare and more.

Now, in the 21st century, university students demand trigger warnings when Ovid is taught to protect them from “offensive material that marginalises student identities in the classroom”. No-platforming campaigns at another university stop Germaine Greer speaking.

Safe spaces are set aside for women who are offended when feminist Christina Hoff Sommers speaks on campus.

Christians are stopped from meeting in a Sydney hotel by a group of same-sex marriage ­activists who have no understanding of free speech. And let’s not even get started on the lunacy of cultural appropriation claims.

In Pakistan, a Christian woman and farm labourer from rural Punjab, Asia Bibi, has been on death row since 2010 awaiting an appeal against charges of blasphemy for insulting the Prophet Mohammed. Blasphemy laws and section 18C differ in two respects: the penalty is harsher and the subject of the insult is dead. But the aim, to censor speech that dares to insult or offend, is the same.

The cowering silence of our political and community leaders as the freedom scales move more and more out of kilter is an affront to our most basic freedoms.

Former prime minister Tony Abbott told The Australian this week that, compared with two years ago, it is now more obvious that section 18C is a weapon to stifle free speech.

In fact, the freedom-killing character of section 18C was clear enough two years ago to those concerned about free speech. That’s why Abbott promised to reform it, only to renege at the first whiff of political grapeshot from Muslim and Jewish community leaders. Abbott’s broken promise about free speech was not befitting of a Liberal leader and neither is Malcolm Turnbull’s determination to hide behind his predecessor’s broken promise.

Jewish community leaders need to rethink and revise their position, too. On August 10, the NSW Jewish Board of Deputies joined with more than 20 other community groups, including the Australian National Imams Council, to demand reform of the feeble incitement to violence laws in NSW. But the NSW Board of Deputies also has joined the Jewish Community Council of Victoria and the Australia/Israel Jewish Affairs Council in opposing any change to an oppressive law that protects hurt feelings. If they want to be taken seriously about the former, they need to find a more sensible position on the latter.

Muslim leaders should reconsider their equally irrational position. Muslim migrants, like every other group of migrants, surely settle in Australia to live safe and secure lives and to enjoy Western freedoms.

That ought to mean supporting change to an inadequate law that fails to keep us safe from violent incitement and equally supporting reform of a law that wrongly protects someone from being insulted.

How many more 12-year-old boys will be radicalised by adults using words aimed to incite violence before NSW Premier Mike Baird shows some leadership and reforms 20D?

And when will the Prime Minister prevent more young students and cartoonists being hauled over the legal coals under section 18C because someone, somewhere, has claimed their feelings have been hurt?