21 December 2000

Extremist Ideology is Not Freedom of Speech

Human Rights Commissioner, Dr Sev Ozdowski said today he was bitterly disappointed to read media reports about the existence of a neo-Nazi group in the Australian army and in particular that the Chief of the Defence Force, Admiral Barrie supports the right of soldiers to engage in such extremist activities.

Dr Ozdowski was commenting on recent media reports that Admiral Barrie had supported the right to freedom of speech of soldiers of the elite third battalion of the army's Royal Australian Regiment who belonged to a neo-Nazi rock band and had expressed extremist views, through the Internet and other means. Admiral Barrie was also reported to claim that the community would find it " very offensive" to discharge people with extreme views from the military.

"Australian soldiers are not entitled to express views supportive of Nazism and such extremist ideology should be condemned whenever it appears", the Human Rights Commissioner said.

"I am disappointed that a senior officer would say that, because of the principle of freedom of speech, it is okay for some soldiers to express such views and that he would refuse to condemn this sort of behaviour outright. What signal does this send?

"It is true that freedom of speech is a cornerstone of western democracies. However, there is no absolute right to freedom of speech in any society. For example, libel, defamation, official secrets laws, as well as the convention about public servants not commenting on public policy, constitute restrictions on freedom of speech."

In Australia, public comments and other behaviour which offends, insults, humiliates or intimidates another person because of his or her race is made unlawful under Part 11A of the Racial Discrimination Act 1975. This law applies across Australia- to civilians and soldiers. When the legislation was enacted, it was recognised that freedom of speech was an important right but this must be balanced with the right of all Australians to live free from discrimination and vilification. Recent cases in the Commission have confirmed that anti-semitic publications and behaviour can breach the Racial Discrimination Act and that the right to freedom of expression is not untrammelled.

"The army is not a debating society and should be apolitical. Soldiers put on their uniforms to serve a democratic and multicultural nation. They are subject to military discipline and should do their utmost to be ready to defend our nation and our democratic principles.

"Nazism is based on an ideology of racial purity and racial hatred. This most abhorrent ideology led to the genocide of millions of people in Europe and elsewhere. Many Australians lost their loved ones in the war against Nazism and will not support our military tolerating Nazi ideology.

It is up to the army top brass to deal with the racist issues and not hide behind the freedom of speech principle."

Media contact: Jan Payne on 0419 258 597

© Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission. Last updated 2 December 2001.
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