Protections from statutory encroachment

Australian Constitution

3.8          Beginning with a series of cases in 1992,[14] the High Court has recognised that freedom of political communication is implied in the Australian Constitution. This freedom ‘enables the people to exercise a free and informed choice as electors’.[15] The Constitution has not been found to protect free speech more broadly.

3.9          The Constitution does not protect a personal right, but rather, the freedom acts as a restraint on the exercise of legislative power by the Commonwealth.[16]

The freedom is to be understood as addressed to legislative power, not rights, and as effecting a restriction on that power. Thus the question is not whether a person is limited in the way that he or she can express himself or herself, although identification of that limiting effect may be necessary to an understanding of the operation of a statutory provision upon the freedom more generally. The central question is: how does the impugned law affect the freedom?[17]

3.10       The freedom is not absolute. For one thing, it only protects some types of speech—political communication.[18] In Lange v Australian Broadcasting Corporation it was held that the freedom is ‘limited to what is necessary for the effective operation of that system of representative and responsible government provided for by the Constitution’.[19]

3.11       While the scope of the implied freedom is open to some interpretation, it does not appear to extend to non-political communication and non-federal communications concerning discrete state issues.[20]

3.12       Chief Justice French has advocated a broader understanding of the meaning of ‘political communications’ to include ‘matters potentially within the purview of government’,[21]but this interpretation has not commanded support of a majority of the High Court.[22]

3.13       In Lange, the High Court formulated a two-step test to determine whether a law burdens the implied freedom. As modified in Coleman v Power,[23] the test involves asking two questions:

1. Does the law, in its terms, operation or effect, effectively burden freedom of communication about government or political matters?

2. If the law effectively burdens that freedom, is the law nevertheless reasonably appropriate and adapted to serve a legitimate end in a manner which is compatible with the maintenance of the constitutionally prescribed system of representative and responsible government, and the procedure prescribed by s 128 of the Constitution for submitting a proposed amendment of the Constitution to the informed decision of the people?[24]

3.14       The limited scope of the communications covered by the implied freedom are illustrated by the decision of the High Court in APLA Ltd v Legal Services Commissioner (NSW).[25] This concerned whether prohibitions, in NSW legislation, on advertising by barristers and solicitors offended the Constitution. The High Court held that the prohibitions were not constitutionally invalid.

3.15       Kirby J, in dissent, held that as a matter of basic legal principle, a protected freedom of communication arises to protect the integrity and operation of the judicial branch of government, just as it does with regard to the legislature and executive branch.[26]The laws in question, he said, amounted to ‘an impermissible attempt of State law to impede effective access to Ch III courts and to State courts exercising federal jurisdiction’, which ‘cannot stand with the text, structure and implications of the Constitution’.[27]

3.16       The constitutionality of provisions of the Criminal Code (Cth), concerning using a postal or similar service to menace, harass or cause offence,[28] was considered by the High Court in Monis v The Queen.[29]

3.17       The High Court divided equally on whether s 471.12 of the Criminal Code exceeded the limits of the legislative power of the Commonwealth Parliament because it impermissibly burdens freedom of communication about government or political matters.[30]

3.18       Three judges held that the provision was invalid on the basis that preventing offence through a postal or similar service was not a ‘legitimate end’, as referred to in the Lange test.[31] The other judges read down s 471.12 as being ‘confined to more seriously offensive communications’ and aimed at the legitimate end of preventing a degree of offensiveness that would provoke a more heightened emotional or psychological response by a victim.[32] Read this way, the law went no further than was reasonably necessary to achieve its protective purpose.[33]

3.19       The freedom of political communication doctrine in Australia applies to a narrower range of speech, as compared to protections in other countries (including the United States, Canada, the UK and New Zealand). Australia is the only democratic country that does not expressly protect freedom of speech in its ‘national Constitution or an enforceable national human rights instrument’.[34]

Principle of legality

3.20       The principle of legality provides some further protection to freedom of speech.[35] When interpreting a statute, courts will presume that Parliament did not intend to interfere with freedom of speech, unless this intention was made unambiguously clear.[36]

3.21       For example, in Attorney-General (South Australia) v Corporation of the City of Adelaide, French CJ said:

The common law freedom of expression does not impose a constraint upon the legislative powers of the Commonwealth or the States or Territories. However, through the principle of legality, and criteria of reasonable proportionality, applied to purposive powers, the freedom can inform the construction and characterisation, for constitutional purposes, of Commonwealth statutes. It can also inform the construction of statutes generally and the construction of delegated legislation made in the purported exercise of statutory powers. As a consequence of its effect upon statutory construction, it may affect the scope of discretionary powers which involve the imposition of restrictions upon freedom of speech and expression.[37]

3.22       In Monis, Crennan, Kiefel and Bell JJ held:

The principle of legality is known to both the Parliament and the courts as a basis for the interpretation of statutory language. It presumes that the legislature would not infringe rights without expressing such an intention with ‘irresistible clearness’. The same approach may be applied to constitutionally protected freedoms. In such a circumstance it may not be necessary to find a positive warrant for preferring a restricted meaning, save where an intention to restrict political communication is plain (which may result in invalidity). A meaning which will limit the effect of the statute on those communications is to be preferred.[38]

International law

3.23       International instruments provide for freedom of expression including the right, under art 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), to ‘seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds regardless of frontiers’.[39] The UN Human Rights Committee provides a detailed list of forms of communication that should be free from interference:

Political discourse, commentary on one’s own and on public affairs, canvassing, discussion of human rights, journalism, cultural and artistic expression, teaching and religious discourse.[40]

3.24       The Castan Centre for Human Rights Law stated that common law ‘protection of free speech at the Commonwealth level essentially dates back to 1992, and is very limited compared with the equivalent protection under international law’.[41]

3.25       International instruments cannot be used to ‘override clear and valid provisions of Australian national law’.[42] However, where a statute is ambiguous, courts will generally favour a construction that accords with Australia’s international obligations.[43]

Bills of rights

3.26       In other countries, bills of rights or human rights statutes provide some protection to certain rights and freedoms. Bills of rights and human rights statutes protect free speech in the United States,[44] United Kingdom,[45] Canada[46] and New Zealand.[47] For example, the Human Rights Act 1998 (UK) gives effect to the provisions of the European Convention on Human Rights, art 10 of which provides:

Everyone has the right to freedom of expression. This right shall include freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart information and ideas without interference by public authority and regardless of frontiers. This Article shall not prevent States from requiring the licensing of broadcasting, television or cinema enterprises.[48]

3.27       This legislative right may not necessarily be different from the freedom recognised at common law: several members of the House of Lords expressed the opinion ‘that in the field of freedom of speech there was in principle no difference between English law on the subject and article 10 of the Convention’.[49]

3.28       The First Amendment to the United States Constitution provides significant protection to free speech. In New York Times v Sullivan, Brennan J spoke of a ‘profound national commitment to the principle that debate on public issues should be uninhibited, robust and wide open, and that it may well include vehement, caustic, and sometimes unpleasantly sharp attacks on government and public officials’.[50]

3.29       There are also protections for free speech in the Victorian Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities and the Human Rights Act 2004 (ACT).[51]