What the controversy surrounding the club has prompted, however, is a broader question: how do we distinguish free speech from fair speech?
Freedom of expression is a fundamental right in a pluralist democratic society. However, in a similar vein to the way freedom of movement is restricted to prevent acts that physically harm others, why are we so hesitant to consider speech in a similar way?
Words, like physical acts, can have injurious psychological effects on people. Whether it is the ongoing emotional abuse suffered by survivors of domestic violence or the assertion that homosexuality is a perversion to be cured, speech can be violent.
In NSW, vilification laws balance the tensions between free and fair speech: limit public acts that incite hatred, contempt for, or severe ridicule of particular marginalised groups in our society. While gender remains a notable omission from vilification laws, the underlying rationale is that a society that encourages free an open debate should do so in a way that is respectful and does not harm others.
Xavier Symons wrote yesterday in The Punch that “this isn’t feminism; this is frenzied, foam-flecked paranoia.” I agree that the issue is not confined to feminism, though departing from the rest of his claim on “frenzied paranoia”, I would suggest that concern over the existence of LifeChoice stems from the stigma and shame that such “pro-life” clubs cause women.
LifeChoice is not a bioethics discussion forum to discuss whether life begins at conception nor is it a reproductive health club that provides non-judgmental information on the alternatives to pregnancy.
LifeChoice asserts the dignity of human life from conception. At the USU Policy Forum, club members elaborated that their underlying rationale was to inform debate by recognising the equivalent value of “foetal life.”
While couched in seemingly innocuous language of “life” we must be wary of how the conflation of a baby and a foetus stigmatises an already physically, psychologically and financially complex decision.
If the dignity of “life” begins at conception (their website refers to foetuses as babies), then women who choose to have an abortion are by implication rendered as perpetrators of infanticide.
Speech is powerful. For some it can be a means to mobilise social change. Yet, for others, the exercise of free speech can cause both individual and social harm.
Last year, I wrote a piece about Exodus International and the dangerousness of its claim that it could “cure” homosexuality. My primary point was not that we should impeach freedom of religion or expression. Rather, it was that we should not facilitate speech that suggests homosexuality is a disease or perversion because it has extremely corrosive consequences on the mental health of same-sex attracted people.
When it comes to LifeChoice, we should distinguish between the entitlement to a hold a personal belief on an issue and receiving public funding for that which creates (even without intentional malice) a space of harassment and shame for women who exercise their reproductive autonomy.
In such an emotionally charged debate it is important that freedom of speech is not seen as divisible against the right to live free from discrimination and harm.
In endorsing the creation of the LifeChoice, the USU has used “diversity” as a shield against criticisms that it is undermining the sexual and reproductive rights of women. Whether such a defence is valid or not, it obscures the broader concern that a rich and vibrant student culture should not come at the expense of others.
Freedom of expression should not cease because an opinion is unpopular or shared by only a few. However, if we are committed to a fair, as well as free democracy, we must not be manipulated into embracing conduct that discriminates, harasses or incites violence under the guise of “free speech.”