Editorial: Condemning protest is a greater threat to free speech than yelling at an ex-PM

The wave of hostility towards protesters exercising their rights to express anger at a powerful public figure is concerning. The truly threatening restriction of free speech is far larger in scale, and more significant in its silencing effects.

In the wake of a protest against former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull at an event by Sydney University Law Society (SULS) yesterday, media responses to student protesters have been swift and derisive. 

Turnbull himself complained that the University didn’t do more to stop the protesters from crashing the event, while commenters have accused them of silencing the former politician in what mainstream media has labelled an act of “fascism”. Conservative “satirist” Rowan Dean took the opportunity to indulge the shit-for-brains instincts of many middle-aged white men by producing an unintelligible diatribe against all things woke in the Australian Financial Review (read: young people, trans people, Indigenous Australians, women and people of colour). It would perhaps be more offensive if it were at all comprehensible. 

Whatever you think of the protest — no matter how unstrategic, misdirected, or just plain foolish you think it was — this hostility towards protesters exercising their rights to express anger at a powerful public figure is concerning. 

Turnbull — a multimillionaire with a healthy public profile, an autobiography, and ample opportunities for fawning press coverage — is not a helpless victim of ‘fascists’ taking away his free speech. To frame Turnbull’s inability to speak over the volume of protestors in this light requires a concerningly low level of critical thinking. For a free speech debate to operate adequately, we must look at the footing on which each participant is entering the conversation. One would assume that an ex-Prime Minister holds a little more public power than a group of students. Indeed, the truly threatening restriction of free speech is far larger in scale, and more significant in its silencing effects. 

It looks like punitive anti-protest laws intent on shutting down climate action and unionism. It looks like an extraordinary suite of national security laws stopping journalists from reporting on Australian covert operations. It looks like the suppression of whistleblowers and the silencing of refugees. 

These individuals, unlike Turnbull, do not enjoy the vast platform and power that Turnbull wields. In 2016, Turnbull proposed a lifetime refugee ban, aiming squarely at powerless asylum seekers and refugees seeking safety. The communities and students adversely affected by the policies he presided over, like Robodebt, emerged worse following his government. And the postal vote that eventually legalised marriage equality, often brandished as the crown jewel of his term, instigated one of the most destructive culture wars for LGBTQIA+ Australians in 2017. Let it not be forgotten that there was ample opportunity for Turnbull to legislate marriage equality without this ugly, life-ending public discourse. Perhaps free speech was too important. 

One of the rare avenues offered for those who oppose him to voice dissent is direct protest, the kind that Turnbull sneers at with condescension and contempt. 

He and the media say that protesters should be more ‘civil’ and engage in a gentlemanly dialogue with him. That he should be afforded a level of respect in public debate that he himself has not afforded marginalised communities, many of which are represented at our university, during his time as Prime Minister.

Those who complain about Turnbull being “silenced” (not that he was truly silenced – the event continued over Zoom) should be wary of calling for protesters to be punished. Clearly, there are serious risks to be found in leaping to frame discussions like this as “free speech” issues. But perhaps there is also a more straightforward approach: heckling politicians is a time-honoured tradition performed by many university students. It should not be undermined by squeamishness and civility politics; you might not find yesterday’s protests appealing, but the right to yell at a man who has occupied one of the highest offices in the land, and allowed for the suffering and silencing of so many, is an important one. 

Fanning the flames of restrictions on protest is a risky and illiberal move. Expressing dissent against political figures is valuable, even if it is raucous. If students don’t do it, who will?