Press Council rules in support of free speech

The Australian Press Council has ruled that freedom of speech is more important than potential offence articles can cause to readers in two adjudications within a month.

The council dismissed a complaint against The Daily Advertiser, a regional newspaper owned by Fairfax Media in Wagga Wagga, NSW, over two articles that opposed same-sex marriage.

The first article published in print and online was a letter to the editor, published on June 16, headed “Maccas’ ads in bad taste, just like gay marriage”. The second article, published in print only on July 14, was a “Wheeler’s Wisdom” column, headed “Gay marriage is not all it seems”.

Both articles appeared in the context of a number of articles and letters which the paper had published on the subject of marriage equality.

The letter from a reader, Arnold Jago, suggested homosexuality was analogous to “a little-discussed disorder of coprophagia” and was “unhealthy and abnormal”.

The second article commented on the same-sex marriage debate and highlighted an increased rate of HIV and AIDS, the “plight of adopted children”, and the suggestion that changes to marriage laws could result in recognition of polyamorous marriage as reasons to support “opposition to homosexual marriage”.

The council accepted that the views expressed may have caused offence, however, it believed the paper did not breach its Standards of Practice.

“The council concludes that the articles were not so offensive as to outweigh the public interest in allowing robust expressions of opinion on issues of national debate,” the council said in its adjudication.

Similarly in October, in an adjudication of a complaint against an online article in the NT News, the council found that the level of offence must be assessed in the overall context of the publication, its style and its readership.

The article in question was published on May 12, headlined “Overly keen motorist roots car’s exhaust pipe” and a homepage item linking to the article headlined “Keen motorist exhausted after root”. The article contained an embedded video featuring a clothed man kneeling behind a car apparently engaged in a sex act with the car’s exhaust pipe. The article referred to a man who had “made love to more than 700 vehicles”.

The items were removed after the complaint.

The council noted that while publications must comply with the council’s standards, the style and readership of a publication had to be taken into account when applying them.

The council accepted NT News had a distinctive style and noted it had processes for considering whether and how to publish potentially contentious material, and its action to remove the material in response to the complaint.

The level of offence must be assessed in the overall context of the publication, its style and its readership, the council said in its adjudication. In the circumstances, the council concluded that the article was not substantially offensive and did not breach the council’s general principles.

The council adjudications are significant in terms of protection of freedom of speech.

The Tasmanian Anti-Discrimination Commission has upheld a complaint last month over a pamphlet distributed by the Catholic Church in support of traditional marriage.

In notification of its decision, the commission said there was a possible breach of the state Anti-Discrimination Act through “conduct that is offensive intimidating, insulting” toward the complainant and the class of same-sex attracted people.

The commission said it wanted to run a national test case on the issue if the complaint could not be resolved through mediation.

Meanwhile cross-bench senators have proposed a motion to remove the words “offend” and “insult” from Section 18c of the Racial Discrimination Act following the failure of the federal government to honour its promise to amend the Act after the Federal Court decision against columnist Andrew Bolt.

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