Australian territory passes anti-blasphemy law

You may not know that in many parts of Australia, blasphemy—the criticism of religion—remains a criminal offense, though it’s almost never enforced. Wikipedia describes the complicated situation:

All common law offences were abolished and replaced by a criminal code without replacing the common law offences of blasphemy and blasphemous libel with criminal code offences in Queensland in 1899, Western Australia in 1919, and the Commonwealth in 1995. Tasmania abolished common law in 1924 but introduced blasphemy offences with the Tasmanian Criminal Code Act 1924. In 1996, the Australian Capital Territory abolished the common law offence of blasphemous libel but not blasphemy.

Although the common law offences of blasphemy and blasphemous libel were abolished in England and Wales in 2008, they have not been abolished in Australia in South Australia, Victoria, New South Wales, the Northern Territory, and Norfolk Island, and blasphemy but not blasphemous libel remains as an offence in the Australian Capital Territory.

. . . In some jurisdictions, such as Tasmania, Queensland, and Victoria, someone who is offended by someone else’s attitude toward religion or toward one religion can seek redress under legislation which prohibits hate speech.

As far as the Australian Capital Territory (the area around Canberra, the nation’s capital) goes, Wikipedia adds this:

By its Law Reform (Abolitions & Repeals) Act 1996, the Australian Capital Territory abolished the common law offence of blasphemous libel. The common law offence of blasphemy may yet exist.

“May yet exist” is a bit ambiguous. But it doesn’t seem ambiguous any longer, for, as the Brisbane Times reports, on Thursday the ACT Parliament passed a “religious vilification law” that is punishable by fines up to $7500 and a criminal conviction. It seems spurred largely by an attempt to protect Muslims, but it appears to prevent criticism of all religions, and other stuff as well (my emphasis in extract below):

Both Labor and Liberal supported the move put by the Greens Shane Rattenbury, who said the display of hatred, intolerance and offensive behaviour towards Muslims was one of the biggest intolerance issues in Australia today.

The University of South Australia had found about 10 per cent of Australians were highly Islamophobic, and while the ACT showed the lowest rates in the country, Islamophobia was still significant here.

“It is clear [Muslims] are frequently, almost constantly, exposed to discrimination, vilification and targeted offensive behaviour,” he said.

Thursday’s changes to the Discrimination Act also added disability to the list, so it is now illegal to vilify someone because of disability, religion, race, sexuality, gender identity, and HIV/AIDS status. Vilification can include social media posts, actions in a workplace and wearing clothes, signs or flags that would incite hatred, contempt, ridicule or revulsion.

Liberal leader Jeremy Hanson said the Liberals wanted a harmonious, multicultural society free from extremism. He had been shot at by Sunni and Shiite extremists and by the IRA, so he knew firsthand the consequences of extremism, but others in the community experienced the consequences daily.

Christians and Jews were also vilified for their beliefs and would be protected by the new legislation, he said.

Attorney-General Simon Corbell said the change was not designed to limit freedom of speech but to “ensure the political discourse does not descend into hatred”.

Now if this were simply targeted and repeated harassment of an individual, that’s one thing, but it’s far more than that. First, it would give me the right to bring charges against someone who said, “Coyne is a bloody money-grubbing big-nosed Jew who’s soft on Israel.” (In fact, that comes close to stuff I get from time to time.) That is not slander, which is harming someone’s reputation through known falsehoods. It may be motivated by hatred, but if it’s a one-off and is not directed personally at me through repeated phone calls and emails, or in the workplace, I wouldn’t care a whit.

But the law, as you can see from the bolded bit, goes beyond that, implying that individuals don’t have to be the targets, but also religion, race, sexuality, and so on. Wearing clothing with Jesus and Mo cartoons on them would, for instance, be illegal because they could be claimed to incite “contempt, ridicule, and revulsion.” (Indeed, wearing those shirts was prohibited at a Fresher’s Fair at the London School of Economics.) And not just against Muslims, but against Christians (Jesus and Mo is an equal-Abrahamic offender.)

Such regulations would never stand under the U.S.’s First Amendment to the Constitution.

With this law, the ACT sets itself up to be the Oberlin College of Australia. Aussies, do you want this kind of free-speech suppression in your capital territory? I think a test case, perhaps wearing one of those tee-shirts, is in order.

h/t: Barry


  1. Stonyground
    Posted August 6, 2016 at 9:48 am | Permalink

    For a while the UK government were talking about passing a law restricting criticism of religion on the grounds that it was inciting religious hatred. This had the potential to be a bigger restriction on free speech than the recently abolished blasphemy law. I sent the relevant government department a copy of the Bible, bookmarked and accompanied by a list of all the groups of people that the bible incites hatred of, basically everyone at some point. Since the Koran is even worse, any book shop selling these books would have fallen foul of these laws. In the end, this bill was passed but, thanks to the work of the NSS, in such a watered down form that it had little effect.

    • Geoffrey Howe
      Posted August 6, 2016 at 11:38 am | Permalink


      Seriously, large portions of Christianity and Islam are based on the idea that everyone who isn’t a Christian or Muslim deserves eternal torture.

      And yet I somehow doubt that this blasphemy law will start arresting anybody that says Non-Christians/Muslims will be tortured by god forever, despite that going just a step or two beyond villification…

  2. frednotfaith2
    Posted August 6, 2016 at 9:48 am | Permalink

    Laws against blasphemy are an affront to freedom of speech. No religion or other idea should be above criticism or ridicule. Genuine harassment of individuals should be illegal, and carefully defined so as not to include, for example, protests against particular politicians or finding fault with anyone’s deeply held but incredibly absurd beliefs, which goes for every religion ever conceived that involves belief in supernatural beings.

  3. fjordaniv
    Posted August 6, 2016 at 9:48 am | Permalink

    “Attorney-General Simon Corbell said the change was not designed to limit freedom of speech but to ‘ensure the political discourse does not descend into hatred’.”

    It’s never limiting free speech, it it?

    • Taz
      Posted August 6, 2016 at 6:30 pm | Permalink

      I’ve come to the conclusion that whenever an official claims a new rule or law is “not intended to limit free speech”, you can be sure that’s exactly what it does.

    • Posted August 8, 2016 at 11:54 am | Permalink

      I regard them stating this as a victory *for* free speech. Why? Because it suggests the officials know perfectly well how valued free speech *is*, and so have to lie/obsfucate in order to avoid saying the obvious.

      Just like elections, in a corrupt or authoritarian state, are a marginal good thing – it shows that the regime recognizes their power, even if cynically. (Whereas, in the old days, such states would just not bother.)

  4. Dan
    Posted August 6, 2016 at 9:49 am | Permalink

    As a resident of Australia I have to say this is embarrassing.

  5. Posted August 6, 2016 at 9:56 am | Permalink

    Reblogged this on The Logical Place.

  6. somer
    Posted August 6, 2016 at 10:08 am | Permalink

    Its ALWAYS the Greens that drive this.

    A few years ago they even gave their preferences to a mining magnate with a bad record re environmental standards and the Great Barrier reef, Clive Palmer, because he wanted to A) remove ALL visa controls on Muslim countries and then pay the 100s of thousands claiming asylum – unscreened – to fly direct to australia to be accepted – as an ongoing policy every year
    Palmer was elected but has little influence and his business fortunes have since waned.

    • somer
      Posted August 6, 2016 at 10:25 am | Permalink

      As Professor Coyne noted elsewhere, once the left muzzle criticism of religion on grounds of offending minorities, the right tend to go along with it as granting Christianity more purchase too. I fear losing civil rights ground that has been painfully won over the last 50 years, all under the guise of being supposedly “nice” but actually pleasing no one and making this country a less desirable place to live for all.

    • kelskye
      Posted August 6, 2016 at 5:15 pm | Permalink

      “Its ALWAYS the Greens that drive this.”
      Yet those who vote Greens are at a loss to explain why I’m not down with the party…

  7. somer
    Posted August 6, 2016 at 10:20 am | Permalink

    Nationally, in Australia, we have just in the last 2 or 3 years had the emergence of extremist anti Muslim groups. We have a number of redneck politicians. But we have this sort of thing on the other side of politics. We keep having tight elections at national (and often state) level and the centre left Labour party has fallen into a pattern of relying on the Greens to get it over the line, hence it is being influenced by them when they are more interested in overseas and SJW matters than green matters, and interested in people already here last. TheY are interested in poverty in Australia only in terms of high theory and Big Principle, not whats required in reality. Reasonable debate is confined to a very narrow economic agenda and I personally feel the centre is forced to be silent.

  8. tubby
    Posted August 6, 2016 at 10:25 am | Permalink

    They might want to think carefully about whether or not blasphemy laws are useful in preventing harassment based on religion. It could be used to criminalize those precious expressions about the holy duty to spread the word of Jesus along with the threat of eternal torture for those who don’t believe, and the duty to suppress, kill, humiliate, subjugate, and convert anyone not Muslim.

    • somer
      Posted August 6, 2016 at 10:34 am | Permalink

      I very much doubt that’s how it will be used tho

      • gravelinspector-Aidan
        Posted August 7, 2016 at 9:40 am | Permalink

        As I read the stuff posted (IANAL), there is no need to the person making the complaint to be a member of the affected groups. So there is nothing to prevent one person lunching cases under these laws, condemning any and all of the religions for attacking the others in a circular manner.
        I thought that the lawyers – who generally make up the largest part of pre-parliamentary careers for politicians – prided themselves on being able to make a logical argument. So why can’t they see logical traps being set for them?

  9. Sastra
    Posted August 6, 2016 at 12:31 pm | Permalink

    It seems to me that the best way to ensure that “political discourse does not descend into hatred” is to make it illegal to vilify anyone for any reason at all. This would make every idea sacred. Nothing bad can be said about liberals, conservatives, free tradists, xenophobes, sovereign citizens, gospel singers, rock stars, stamp collectors, fascists, and, of course, blasphemers. Political discourse will take on the happy harmony of Show-and-Tell.

    The problem with treating religion like race is that religion is more like a political or scientific view. You may be deeply attached to a particular conclusion — but if you switch sides you’re still you.

    • gravelinspector-Aidan
      Posted August 7, 2016 at 9:40 am | Permalink

      That might suppress the speech. It would have no effect at all upon the actual emotions.

  10. Heather Hastie
    Posted August 6, 2016 at 12:33 pm | Permalink

    This is a disgrace. It’s true that there is an increase in Islamophobia in Oz, evidenced by extreme right-wing politicians increasingly getting elected, but this is absolutely not the way to fix it.

    The US has Trump, the UK has Farage, France has Le Pen, and Australia has Pauline Hanson.

    • Posted August 6, 2016 at 1:03 pm | Permalink

      Possibly non-right-wing politicians should think better how not to bring in people like Khaled Sharrouf.

      • Heather Hastie
        Posted August 6, 2016 at 1:09 pm | Permalink

        They’re too busy torturing teenagers and deporting innocent NZers.

        • Posted August 6, 2016 at 1:36 pm | Permalink

          Heather, you are being xtremely loose with the truth there. The teenager you are talking about was being restrained, not tortured. Big difference. And New Zealand can have all their bikie thugs and other crims back.

          • Heather Hastie
            Posted August 6, 2016 at 7:09 pm | Permalink

            If you think a law, where people were born in NZ, but lived from earliest childhood in Australia, have their whole lives there including wives and children, then commit a crime, do the time, stay clean, then are suddenly deported in their 30s and 40s is fair I’m not impressed. Then there are those who are in the same situation but have NO convictions and are deported because they associate with Aussies who are assholes are deported – it’s even worse. And what about keeping them in disgusting, inhuman conditions in offshore detention centres while their fate is decided? That’s OK is it?

            I can understand deporting actual criminals, but a lot of those being deported aren’t and many learned their criminal behaviour as children in Australia.

            You may also know that Australian law regarding immigrants from NZ is not equal to that of other immigrants. NZers living and working in Aus are required to pay into the disability scheme but are not entitled to receive any payments from it, and often nor are their children even if they were born in Australia.

            • infiniteimprobabilit
              Posted August 6, 2016 at 9:36 pm | Permalink

              I have to agree 100% with Heather there. In the past, New Zealand and Australia had a close relationship so large numbers of Kiwis moved to Australia – because they could, and there were few restrictions. Now, with a sort of xenophobic knee-jerk over-reaction, the Australian right wing is bashing Kiwi immigrants.

              New Zealand did it to Pacific Islanders in the 80’s, USA does it to Mexicans periodically. It’s always ugly when it happens.


            • somer
              Posted August 6, 2016 at 9:39 pm | Permalink

              Really unfair. Liberal-National Party government.

          • Michael Waterhouse
            Posted August 7, 2016 at 1:46 am | Permalink

            Australians are too busy torturing teenagers and deporting ‘innocent’ New Zealanders.

            Really? You really think that of Australians? Interesting.

            Because, first.

            The vast majority of, if any, of those New Zealanders deported are not innocent. They are in fact real, violent, thugs, outlaw bikie types, convicted of rapes, assault, armed robbery and the like.

            Not minor crime. The sentence has to be prison, for over 12 months.

            That a few ‘may’ have relatively minor crimes may be a true but you do have to be doing something wrong to get 12 months jail.

            How many have been sent back for no conviction? I can’t find any?

            Accusing ‘Australians’ of torturing teenagers on the basis of one incident,in a detention center, which was not torture but resulted in outrage throughout the nation just the same, and has resulted in a Royal Commission into the justice system in the Northern Territory, is absurd.

            • John Taylor
              Posted August 7, 2016 at 6:35 am | Permalink

              Aussie Kiwi fight! Fight, fight, fight!!!

    • gravelinspector-Aidan
      Posted August 7, 2016 at 9:43 am | Permalink

      the UK has Farage

      Farage has ducked out of UK politics to avoid having to take the blame for the disaster that will be Brexit.
      (No doubt he’ll be back, on a white horse with a conical white hat, once the current crop have spoiled their reputations by trying to implement a Brexit strategy.)

      • Heather Hastie
        Posted August 7, 2016 at 12:11 pm | Permalink

        I agree. I can’t see him keeping away from the limelight.

        • gravelinspector-Aidan
          Posted August 7, 2016 at 6:45 pm | Permalink

          He’s keeping away from the shitstorm Once that separates from the limlight, he’ll be back, Mothra-like.

  11. Posted August 6, 2016 at 1:40 pm | Permalink


  12. sensorrhea
    Posted August 6, 2016 at 2:22 pm | Permalink

    I don’t understand blasphemy laws.

    Isn’t every religion practicing constant blasphemy, both implicit and explicit, against every other religion?

    • Posted August 8, 2016 at 11:57 am | Permalink

      Presumably that’s why blasphemous *libel* is the offence in Canada. (Not that makes it much better, but …)

  13. Jeremy Tarone
    Posted August 6, 2016 at 3:47 pm | Permalink

    It’s interesting how religions can vociferously talk about homosexuals as lower life forms, single mothers as the bane of civilization, atheists and humanists as the work of the devil and evil incarnate, and have been doing so for as long as I remember, but their thin skin requires laws to protect them, including their gods who seem too weak and pathetic to protect themselves.

    I wonder if Hindus will be able to complain that beef products are offensive to them and a blight on their gods?

    This law is going to be trouble.

  14. stuartcoyle
    Posted August 6, 2016 at 4:19 pm | Permalink

    It’s interesting to note that if you look at the list of things that this law makes illegal to vilify people about, all of them except for one are biological in origin:
    “disability, religion, race, sexuality, gender identity, and HIV/AIDS status”

  15. Posted August 6, 2016 at 4:57 pm | Permalink

    This is happening at a time in Australia (and the ACT) when there is a surge in the number of reports of the sexual molestation of children by religious authorities. Does one commit blasphemy by pointing out the obvious ethical frailties of such institutions?

    And what is blasphemy anyway? To any particular religion ALL other religions and points of view are by definition blasphemous. I conject that no one will ever be prosecuted under this odious ‘law’.

    It’s interesting that as a citizen of the ACT I first heard about this blasphemy law on this website – there was so little coverage of it in the Australian and ACT press.


    • somer
      Posted August 6, 2016 at 9:44 pm | Permalink

      They just don’t see this sort of thing as important. The Greens are naive – from talking to a number of them in the past they have a furry view of religion – there’s bad religion which is capitalist oriented which is not the “real” religion. The real religion (of any culture even Christianity) is a kind of socialist paradise of fairness.

  16. Nick
    Posted August 6, 2016 at 5:05 pm | Permalink

    It’s not just the ACT. There was a recent high profile case here in Australia where a man was convicted of the federal crime of “using a carriage service to offend” after posting vile, racist comments on the Facebook page of an aboriginal politician.

    As much as I found the comments disgusting, I couldn’t believe we had a law against “offending” someone. The law itself prohibits one to “offend”, “menace” or “harrass”, but it seems to be the former that was used in this case to justify the conviction (he was fined).

    • somer
      Posted August 6, 2016 at 9:48 pm | Permalink

      Im not a lawyer but I imagine its used selectively – in this case in conjunction with the Racial Discrimination act because it was plainly racial vilification = I only say this because Ive only ever heard of that one case of it being used, but I may be wrong

  17. kelskye
    Posted August 6, 2016 at 5:11 pm | Permalink

    Suppose like all things, how it’s put into practice is what matters. I’m not imagining there’s going to be much difference in my day-to-day life (as an ACT resident), or the day-to-day life of anyone really. Time will tell.

    • Michael Waterhouse
      Posted August 7, 2016 at 1:50 am | Permalink

      There is a reporter in Melbourne who may disagree with you.
      Andrew Bolt. Whether I agree with him on many or any issue, I want to hear him say stuff and he has been stopped before.

      • kelskye
        Posted August 7, 2016 at 5:40 am | Permalink

        Do you think these laws will affect Andrew Bolt in Melbourne, or are you conflating Bolt’s issues with existing federal legislation – namely 18C of the racial discrimination act?

        Not commenting on the Bolt case itself, but it’s worth keeping relevant what legislation is in question. Otherwise you end up being like that idiot One Nation senator who claimed political correctness prevented discussion about tax and the economy.

    • Tony
      Posted August 20, 2016 at 5:46 am | Permalink

      It matters that this law exists at all, since it is a direct attack on free speech by its existence. Existing, as shamefully it does, it provides the opportunity for, and means of, suppressing criticism of certain religious people who work (and pray presumably) for nothing but the vilification of others, vilify others habitually, and whose goal is a theocracy in which vilification of others is that prayed-for state’s policy. In fact, a case could very well be made that whoever introduced this filthy legislation might be the first to be tried under it for attempting to silence those opposing such a nightmare.

  18. Peter
    Posted August 6, 2016 at 11:12 pm | Permalink

    Thursday’s changes to the Discrimination Act also added disability to the list, so it is now illegal to vilify someone because of disability, religion, race, sexuality, gender identity, and HIV/AIDS status. Vilification can include social media posts, actions in a workplace and wearing clothes, signs or flags that would incite hatred, contempt, ridicule or revulsion.

    This is all very vague. Where is the precision here? This is a real concern for me personally, because I’m the kind of person who simply cannot reprogramme myself into telling lies, being “diplomatic”, and otherwise put on an act in order to placate the feelings of people who are thin-skinned (I have Asperger’s Syndrome).

    They don’t define the word “incite” here. What, exactly, does it even mean within this context? Does it mean that we all should from now on try to anticipate the myriad possible ways that someone who is perceived to be “oppressed” will respond to something that, in all innocence, we said or did? Well, sorry, but I literally cannot do that, I don’t have the ability to do it, and for the reason I give above.

    All of this is sheer madness! I am well and truly sick and tired of all the malarkey people who are as I am (i.e. “Aspies”) have to put up with these days. As someone once said, “Offence is never given, it is only ever taken”. As far as I’m concerned, the social justice warriors of the world can all go and get stuffed!

    • somer
      Posted August 6, 2016 at 11:55 pm | Permalink

      I wouldn’t worry. Id say their own rules would require them to fully take your situation into account, but its still intrusive and patronising for all concerned. Regarding the application of the law to the public generally I have no problem with it directed to people being personally rude and abusive (e.g. baiting women wearing hijabs), but blasphemy is broader than that. Nevertheless blasphemy has many contradictory dimensions in a multicultural society as people have pointed out so the criticism of religion element of it may just be symbolic.

  19. Posted August 7, 2016 at 1:38 am | Permalink

    What we need is for one religious minority to blaspheme against another religious minority. That would make a great test case. eg. Muslim vs FSM?

    • Posted August 8, 2016 at 11:59 am | Permalink

      There are likely a handful of Buddhists in Australia by now, so maybe they’d be the test case. As much as I enjoy the FSM joke, I don’t think it would work here, somehow.

  20. Tony
    Posted August 14, 2016 at 9:26 am | Permalink

    I was furious about this when I noticed that some gutless and meaningless politicians had actually framed and passed such a humiliating and vague ‘law’, and my embarrassment for my adopted country (Australia) was real and deep.

    Apart from the innate offensive idiocy of it, I noticed too that this sort of rule-making is becoming more and more popular. Namely, if the actual offence is too hard deal with or to police, make a law that targets the innocent instead but gives the superficial appearance of ‘doing something about it’ without troubling about awkward things such as fair play and justice. An analogy would be a law making it an offence to walk a dog without having a pooh-bag in your pocket to clear up after it. The offence we are actually concerned with (dog mess left on the pavement)is not actually addressed by this law. The innocent non-fouling-dog-walker suffers, and the makers of pooh-bags rub their hands with glee. Yes, please feel free to read between the lines.

%d bloggers like this: