Perhaps no-one will be really amazed at this, but they should be. The Turnbull government, renowned (and attacked) recently for its supposed devotion to free speech, including the rights of bigots and other unpleasant people, has revoked the visa of a Palestinian activist, Bassem Tamimi, shortly before he was due to board a plane for a speaking tour in Australia.
There is as yet no official comment on the websites of either the immigration department or its minister, but media reports say that the only explanation offered for the decision is that “The Department recently became aware of information that indicates there is a risk that members of the public will react adversely to Mr Tamimi’s presence in Australia regarding his views of the ongoing political tensions in the Middle East.”
The remarkable thing about this is that there is no suggestion made that Tamimi himself is a dangerous person or that his views are harmful in themselves – the reason for preventing Australians from hearing him is simply that some might not like them and may disturb the peace in some way as a result. Such a rationale is contemptuous of the value of freedom of speech.
Now, one might respond that foreigners have no speech rights in Australia and the immigration department can do whatever it likes with visa applications. But this is not what the government and its supporters think: we know this because of the oddly parallel case of anti-Muslim activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali.
Those on the right told us that it was vital to support Hirsi Ali’s tour of Australia in the name of free speech, and repeatedly accused her opponents of “intolerance”. And when Hirsi Ali cancelled, citing among other things “security concerns”, this was portrayed as an outrageous act of censorship. Peter Kurti, for example, from the Centre for Independent Studies, referred to “Activist campaigns to silence and censor dissenting views,” without bothering to inform his readers that Hirsi Ali’s opponents had never called for her to be denied entry to the country.
I look forward to hearing what Kurti thinks about the Tamimi case.
Let me make my own view clear. I know a bit about Hirsi Ali’s views (without being any sort of expert), and I regard her as a propagandist for a failed and destructive agenda of American and Israeli imperialism in the Middle East. She is by no means the worst in that category, but I don’t see her as having anything particularly worthwhile to contribute to the debate.
That does not in any way, however, deprive her of the right to free speech. If people want to hear her they should be able to, and if she was in fact prevented from visiting Australia by fears for her safety (and not, say, by not having sold enough tickets), then I think that is very much to be regretted. I have defended the free speech rights of much worse people than Hirsi Ali, and I will continue to do so.
I know almost nothing about Tamimi’s views: I suspect he is much the same sort of propagandist, but on the other side. He may be somewhat more or somewhat less obnoxious than Hirsi Ali; I don’t know, and I have to say I don’t particularly care.
Free speech does not depend on the acceptability of a person’s views. If you defend the rights only of those that you agree with, then what you are talking about isn’t free speech. Tamimi, and anyone else, should be able to visit Australia to present their opinions as long as they are not suspected of an intention to incite violence or to commit some other crime.
And if the media reports are correct, the immigration department does not even claim that there is a problem of this sort with Tamimi’s views. Its problem is that other people – that is, people opposed to those views – might be driven to unlawful or dangerous actions as a result. But surely that was exactly the issue with Hirsi Ali: that there was alleged to be a risk of violence not from her or her supporters, but from her opponents.
In each case, the appropriate response is the same: the attention of law enforcement should be directed to those who actually commit or threaten to commit unlawful acts, not to those by whom they claim to be provoked.
So, how about it? Let’s hear from the supposed devotees of free speech – from James Paterson and John Roskam and Janet Albrechtsen and all the rest. Let them make as much of a fuss about Bassem Tamimi as they did about Andrew Bolt and Ayaan Hirsi Ali, or let them try to come up with a reason why not.
Don’t hold your breath.