AHRC Free Speech Conference 2014

Thursday 7 August 2014, Professor Rosalind Croucher President, Australian law Reform Commission [1]




[Acknowledgement of country—Gadigal and Guring-gai people of the Eora Nation.]

I have been asked to speak today on the ALRC’s newest inquiry. The Attorney-General, Senator the Hon George Brandis QC, has presented us with a wonderful project. It has two main tasks.

The first is to identify Commonwealth laws that encroach upon traditional rights, freedoms and privileges—such as freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and the right to a fair trial, with prosecutors rather than defendants bearing the burden of proof.[2] The Attorney has asked for a Domesday Book—a catalogue or survey of Australian law. (The Domesday Book was the great survey, completed in 1086 at the direction of William I ‘the Conqueror’, of the size and value of each English landholder’s land and livestock—to establish the tax base to support his defence of his new kingdom.)

The second task we have is to critically examine those laws to determine whether the encroachment is appropriately justified. We have been asked to focus, but not limit our work, to three areas: commercial and corporate regulation; environmental regulation; and workplace relations.

Challenging? You bet. Interesting? Absolutely! We are calling it ‘the Freedoms Inquiry’.

My interest in freedom as a concept in law

An inquiry like this draws upon both my own work in classical liberal thought and also a number of ALRC recent inquiries. It raises difficult questions of how fundamental rights and freedoms should be balanced in liberal democracies. I am a legal historian, with a particular interest in property law. Some years ago I wrote a doctorate on testamentary freedom, which naturally required a philosophical exploration of ideas of freedom in liberal thought. In the late 17th century, the great English philosopher John Locke thought about freedom and what it meant in the context of ideas of property. He said that:

Freedom is not, as we are told, a liberty for every man to do what he lists … but a Liberty to dispose and order, as he lists, his person, Actions, Possessions and his whole Property, within the Allowance of those laws under which he is; and therein not subject to the arbitrary will of another, but freely to follow his own.[3]

In my doctoral work I grappled with the idea of testamentary freedom as essentially reflecting a balance—between ideas of family and ideas of property—as expressed in laws.[4] It was also about prepositions, ‘freedom’ is neither an abstract nor an absolute concept. It is about freedom ‘from’, and freedom ‘for’.

The concept of ‘testamentary freedom’ or ‘liberty of testation’ was propelled by the same philosophical discourse that led to the ascendancy of concepts of freedom of contract and laissez-faire economics and was part of the ‘liberty to dispose … what he lists’ in Locke’s thinking. Each expressed the idea of freedom from state control in favour of the power and choice of the individual. Locke was the English champion of the shift towards individual rights of property away from control of the King and feudal property structures. And it was Locke’s advocacy for the protection of citizens in their ‘lives, liberties and estates’ that has formed the basis of modern discussions of freedom of property and individual rights. ‘The end of Law’, he stated, was ‘not to abolish or restrain, but to preserve and enlarge Freedom’.[5] And it was his ideas that justified parliamentary supremacy over absolute monarchy in the ‘Glorious Revolution’ of 1688.

I could talk about this at considerable length, but this is not my task today. It does explain why I found the Attorney’s inquiry both of great interest and a great challenge.

Free speech in recent ALRC inquiries

Freedom of expression is one of the freedoms the ALRC is asked to consider in the Freedoms Inquiry. Although we will be looking at this freedom in a new and broader context in this Inquiry, this is by no means the first time the ALRC has had to consider freedom of speech. Reviewing some of the ALRC’s recent law reform projects, I was surprised how frequently the ALRC has had to consider the importance of the right.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, we have often needed to ‘balance’ freedom of expression with other rights and interests. Rights will of course sometimes conflict with each other. Few, if any, rights are absolute. It’s part of that approach signalled by Locke, namely that liberty sits within ‘the allowance of laws’—or as the Privy Council said in 1936, ‘free speech does not mean free speech; it means speech hedged in by all the laws against defamation, blasphemy, sedition and so forth; it means freedom governed by law’.[6] It therefore seems inevitable that freedom of expression will sometimes need to ‘balanced’ with other interests.

I thought I would take this opportunity to highlight a handful of inquiries in which only recently the ALRC has had to think about how free speech might be weighed against other interests.


Freedom of expression arose most recently in the ALRC’s inquiry into how Australia’s laws can be reformed to better prevent and redress serious invasions of privacy. The final report was completed in June, and is now with the Government, so I won’t speak about our conclusions until it is made public through tabling in Parliament. But it will hardly surprise anyone that we heard many concerns that the introduction of a new cause of action for serious invasion of privacy would damage free speech. Media freedom in particular, we were told, would be undermined, if the media feared being sued for invading people’s privacy. In designing the cause of action, as we were required to do under our Terms of Reference, the ALRC was constantly mindful of the need to ensure that free speech would not be unduly undermined.

In the United Kingdom, courts now explicitly balance privacy and free expression when determining whether a person has a cause of action for misuse of private information. The need for some sort of balancing exercise partly follows from the fact that both privacy and free expression are recognised as fundamental rights under the UK’s Human Rights Act.

An important case that marked a significant shift in the UK law on this point concerned, in the words of one of the Lords Justice, ‘a prima donna celebrity’ and ‘a celebrity-exploiting tabloid newspaper’. In 2003, the House of Lords decided that although there was an important public interest in free expression and a free press, this did not mean that a newspaper could invade the privacy of the model Naomi Campbell by taking and publishing photos of her leaving a Narcotics Anonymous meeting. Interestingly, in coming to this conclusion, some of the justices discussed the relative merits of different types of speech. Baroness Hale said that there are ‘undoubtedly different types of speech, just as there are different types of private information, some of which are more deserving of protection in a democratic society than others’. ‘Top of the list’, she said, ‘is political speech’.

The free exchange of information and ideas on matters relevant to the organisation of the economic, social and political life of the country is crucial to any democracy. Without this, it can scarcely be called a democracy at all.[7]

Political speech may also be ‘top of the list’ in Australia—at least, it is the type of speech that is most clearly protected by the Australian Constitution. But in designing a cause of action, we were also mindful of the need to protect other types of speech, including artistic expression.

It is interesting to compare the balancing of privacy and free speech that we now see in the UK courts since the enactment of their Human Rights Act, with the position in the United States. The law in the United States has recognised various causes of action for invasion of privacy for some time now, but some say the legal protection of privacy is often made impotent, because free expression is so fiercely protected in that country—protected not only legally, enshrined as it is in their Constitution, but also it would seem culturally.

It is also worth stressing that privacy and free expression do not always—much less necessarily—clash with each other. Rather, respecting a person’s privacy should more often than not give that other person the space to speak and act freely—therefore, promoting free expression. There are no doubt exhibitionists who will comfortably be themselves in the Big Brother house for weeks on end, able to ignore the cameras and the fact that their every word is broadcast to the nation. But I imagine many of us would be fundamentally different people—and speak and act much less freely—if we lived under such conditions. Even the mere fear of public exposure can have a stifling effect on freedom of expression. Not knowing whether a camera in our lounge rooms is turned on, or whether one’s emails might one day be read, or whether the history of one’s internet browsing might one day be publicly revealed, can no doubt make us less free.

Where privacy and free speech do conflict, finding the right balance between them will, I think, only become more pressing in the future. The UK phone-hacking scandal perhaps suggests that beyond a certain point, invasions of privacy will not be tolerated by the public—even in the name of a free press.


Freedom of speech also arose in the ALRC’s recent copyright inquiry.[8] In the final report, we recommended the enactment of a fair use exception to copyright laws. By allowing the use of other people’s copyright material without permission or payment in some limited circumstances—when fair—this US style exception to copyright infringement can allow people to use books, films, music and other material in the creation of new books, films, music and other works. Whether one supports the introduction of this contentious exception or not, it seems clear that overly confined or restrictive copyright laws can risk stifling free expression.

However, it is also important to stress that strong and enforced copyright laws are necessary to properly stimulate and reward creative expression. Many writers, artists, film makers and others might not create at all, if they cannot expect to be paid for their work, or to have some control over how their work is used. The ALRC was mindful throughout the copyright inquiry that both overly permissive copyright laws can undermine this incentive to create, and so inhibit free expression.

One might ask how would Mozart have fared today in writing his 12 variations in C Major K.265—variations on ‘Twinkle Twinkle Little Star’. It’s not quite ‘Kookaburra sits in the old gum tree’, but analogous? Or Shakespeare in writing As You Like It—which owes much to a novel of Thomas Lodge, including all the main characters?


Censorship laws perhaps more directly affect freedom of speech. In 2012, the ALRC completed a review of Australia’s censorship laws with the publication of the report Classification—Content Regulation and Convergent Media.[9] The report recognised that classification standards should only be changed after carefully considering community standards, and our inquiry was largely focused on the framework of classification laws, but we nevertheless received enough submissions and community input to recommend that the Government at least consider the scope of the (oddly-named) ‘Refused Classification’ classification. This is the material that is essentially banned throughout Australia, and some people told us that the scope of the category was probably too broad.


In December 2009, the ALRC published the report Secrecy Laws and Open Government in Australia.[10] In this inquiry we considered, among other things, when public servants can be expected to maintain confidences. By restricting Commonwealth officers and others from communicating government information, secrecy laws can limit freedom of expression.

One interesting case that we considered concerned the now repealed regulation 7(13) of the Public Service Regulations 1999 (Cth), which provided that an APS employee must not, without the appropriate permission, ‘give or disclose, directly or indirectly, any information about public business or anything of which the employee has official knowledge’. Justice Finn of the Federal Court held that the regulation was inconsistent with the freedom of political communication implied in the Australian Constitution, and declared the regulation invalid. It burdened freedom of political communication and was not reasonably appropriate and adapted to serve a legitimate end compatible with maintaining the Australian system of representative and responsible government.

Justice Paul Finn of the Federal Court held that, while there may be public interests or ‘legitimate ends’ that justify the burden that secrecy provisions impose on freedom of political communication—including national security, cabinet confidentiality, protection of privacy and the maintenance of an impartial and effective public service—a ‘catch-all’ provision that did not differentiate between the types of information protected or the consequences of disclosure went too far. ‘Official secrecy has a necessary and proper province in our system of government’, Justice Finn said, but a ‘surfeit of secrecy does not’.[11]

The regulation was later repealed and replaced with another regulation that was limited to situations in which it is reasonably foreseeable that the disclosure of official information could be prejudicial to the effective working of government.

Other inquiries

There are quite a number of other examples of ALRC inquiries in which we have considered freedom of speech, including a 2006 report on sedition laws[12] and a 2004 report on Classified and Security Sensitive Information.[13] If a broader view is taken of freedom of expression—and we were to consider laws more generally that affect people’s capacity to speak freely, to live the sorts of lives that give some of us the freedom to speak—then other law reform projects might also be mentioned. For example, we have in recent years completed two inquiries about family violence;[14] and we are in the final stages of completing a report on disability and capacity.[15]


Rights are rarely absolute and will sometimes conflict with each other. Few think that free speech is an absolute right. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights recognises that free speech carries with it special duties and responsibilities, and may be subject to restrictions—but only when necessary and as provided by law.

But the fact that few rights are absolute is not a good argument for too readily diluting one right in the name of another. Lord Hoffmann once said that one will find in the law reports ‘many impressive and emphatic statements about the importance of the freedom of speech and the press. But they are often followed by a paragraph which begins with the word “nevertheless”.’ He went on to say that

Freedom means the right to publish things which government and judges, however well motivated, think should not be published. It means the right to say things which ‘right-thinking people’ regard as dangerous or irresponsible.[16]

It seems inevitable that freedom of speech must at least sometimes give way to other interests, but there is little point in calling it a right, if exceptions and excuses are found too easily. It is indeed a difficult challenge.

In the Freedoms Inquiry we will once more tackle this conundrum, as we identify and critically examine Commonwealth laws that encroach upon traditional rights, freedoms and privileges. We will produce an Issues Paper by Christmas and a Discussion Paper mid next-year—with lots of consultations and opportunities for submissions—concluding in a final report at the end of next year. We will convene an advisory committee of experts, consult widely, and of course engage with the Australian public, including through online forums.

The Attorney has suggested that he wants ‘a Domesday Book, not a Magna Carta … a source of data, in other words, rather than a philosophical or a jurisprudential discussion’.[17] We won’t end up with the Articles of the Barons signed by King John at Runnymede in 1215, which in its own way was a precursor to the Glorious Revolution of 1688, but in ending up with recommendations about when encroachments upon traditional freedoms are appropriate, we are likely to end up with a ‘charter’ of some kind.

What I can promise is that I will not paint my face blue, nor will I bare my bottom (in a William Wallace/Mel Gibson aside, prompted by his famous cry, ‘Freedom!’ as he led his force into battle against the English in 1297). When we first received the terms of reference I made this assurance to the excellent team at the ALRC. On further research, however, I discovered that Boadicea, Queen of the Iceni, also adopted the blue painting strategy and her example is quite inspiring. Apparently the Iceni were well known for using woad on their bodies before going into battle. Apart from looking rather intimidating, it was sensible as woad is an effective antiseptic and it may have been used to help heal battle wounds.

There will be lots of opportunities for involvement and I would encourage you all to do so. All ALRC inquiries start with lots of questions, never any answers and it will be a lively conversation especially throughout next year.

Onwards and upwards—as both William Wallace and Boadicea may well have said, blue-faced or not!


[1]    Professor of Law, Macquarie University, on leave for the duration of appointment at the ALRC. This paper was prepared with considerable assistance from Jared Boorer, Acting Principal Legal Officer, ALRC.

[2]    A list of 19 specific examples is included in the Terms of Reference, which are set out on the ALRC’s website: www.alrc.gov.au.

[3]    John Locke—Two Treatises of Government, P Laslett (ed) (2nd ed, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1967), ch vi, [57].

[4]    R Atherton, ‘“Family” and “Property”: A History of Testamentary Freedom in New South Wales with particular reference to Widows and Children’, PhD Thesis, University of New South Wales, 1994.

[5]    Locke, above, ch VI, ‘Of Paternal Power’, [57].

[6]    James v Cth (1936) 55 CLR 1, 56

[7]    Campbell v MGN Ltd [2004] 2 AC 457, [148].

[8]    The report, Copyright and the Digital Economy (ALRC Report 122) was completed in November 2013 and tabled on 13 February 2014.

[9]    ALRC Report 118, completed in February 2012 and tabled on 1 March 2012.

[10]  ALRC Report 112, completed in December 2009 and tabled on 11 March 2010.

[11]  Bennett v President, Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission [2003] FCA 1433, [98].

[12]  Fighting Words: A Review of Sedition Laws in Australia, ALRC Report 104, tabled on 13 December 2006.

[13]  Keeping Secrets: The Protection of Classified and Security Sensitive Information, ALRC report 98, tabled on 23 June 2004.

[14]  Family Violence—A National Legal Response, ALRC Report 114, tabled on 11 November 2010; and Family Violence and Commonwealth Laws—Improving Legal Frameworks, ALRC Report 117, tabled on 7 February 2012.

[15]  Due to be completed in August 2014.

[16]  R v Central Independent Television plc [1994] Fam 192, 202–3.

[17]  Hansard, Legal and Constitutional Affairs Legislation Committee, Estimates hearing, 24 February 2014.