The Rationalist Society of Australia (RSA) has expressed support for the principles of protecting freedom of expression and freedom of the press, but raised doubt about whether improvements could be achieved through constitutional amendment.
In a submission to the Senate’s Legal and Constitutional Affairs Legislation Committee, the RSA said that the right to freedom of expression was vital to preserving democracy.
The senate committee is currently considering the Constitution Alteration (Freedom of Expression and Freedom of the Press) Bill, which was introduced by senators Stirling Griff and Rex Patrick in 2019.
The bill’s Explanatory Memorandum outlines its purpose as seeking to “enshrine the right of freedom of expression including freedom of the press and other media within the Constitution”.
The proposed amendment would insert a new chapter and section in the Commonwealth of Australia Constitution Act 1900 so that no government could limit freedom of expression, including freedom of the press. Laws that limit such freedoms could be made, however, if they were “reasonable and justifiable in an open, free and democratic society”.
In the submission, RSA president Meredith Doig noted that the proposal broadly reflected Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which provides for everyone to have a right to hold opinions without interference, and the right to freedom of expression, with necessary restrictions.
“The RSA supports the principle underlying this proposed alteration of the Constitution. Freedom of expression, subject to limitations that are reasonable and justifiable in an open, free and democratic society, is vital to democracy and freedom,” she wrote.
Dr Doig acknowledged, however, that the proposal to alter the Constitution would be unlikely to progress.
Recognising the difficulty of achieving a change to the constitution, however desirable, the RSA recommended other ways the committee could better protect freedom of expression through increasing parliamentary oversight of the human rights impacts of government legislation.
The Senate committee is due to report on its inquiry into the bill by 31 December 2021.
Si Gladman is Campaigns & Communications Coordinator at the Rationalist Society of Australia. You can contact him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter at @si_gladman