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There are always difficult questions on what, if any, should be the limits to free speech. Should people have their right to demonstration taken away if what they are saying is upsetting? Politically difficult? Hateful? Offensive to the vulnerable?

As reported in Tuesday’s Courier-Mail, a group of anti-abortion protesters have copped verbal abuse from strangers during their 40-day around-the-clock prayer vigil outside a Brisbane abortion clinic. Daniel Edmonds (the only person quoted in the article), a 40 Days for Life spokesman, was involved in the anti-abortion protest, which tried to maintain a 24-hour presence outside the Dr Marie Stopes clinic. The group engaged in “sidewalk counselling” of women seeking to enter the clinic. He told the paper:

”We’re not there to harass people. We’re there to reach out a hand to help people in a desperate situation.”

Demonstrations like this are common outside women’s health clinics and can upset both staff and clients. There are calls to ban such anti-abortion protests. As a long-term feminist — and one who once had an illegal abortion — I have even protested against such demonstrators who create upset and pain. However, I am concerned that banning such demonstrators might also interfere with my and others’ rights to protest against what annoys us politically.

As a long-term protester and change advocate on a range of issues, I am concerned about giving too much power to the state. Despite the frequent gut reaction of wanting to ban behaviour we find offensive, we need to consider the tendency of governments to ban what they don’t like, which offers serious dangers to free speech. When I grew up, these types of powers were used to bans contraceptive advice and leaflets for promoting legal changes relating to homos-xuality. We need to be very careful not to overuse the law to stop offending people.

A February High Court decision ruled preachers’ free speech rights were not being infringed by a new bylaw prohibiting them from preaching in the Adelaide Mall. The ruling shows the state already has some such powers to limit expression. The Advertiser’s Sean Fewster writes:

The court held the bylaw banning street preachers weighed upon a person’s freedom of speech but, crucially, did not infringe upon it. Or, in non-legal speak, the bylaw restricts where you can express yourself but does not stop you outright. No one can stop you from speaking your mind, but they can control when and where you do it for the sake of those around you. The sense in this ruling is obvious.”

The judgment supports free speech but allows restrictions to ensure the protection and safety of others, meaning laws exist to protect people entering abortion clinics. Some protesters will be able to put forward views that could damage vulnerable patients, and there are options for protecting these people without stopping the possibility of vigorous and even sometimes uncivil debates.

However, we all may need to take on broader issues of cultural change. Putting civility back into public and private conversations would undermine the accusation of political correctness that is often used to silence discussion of communal or individual sensitivities. Civility, being aware of the feelings of others, almost became unfashionable. We should challenge those who upset  the vulnerable and show them how to argue vigorously but respectfully.

Courier-Mail readers left the following comments on the article:

I think the poor women who have to use these clinics are under enough pressure as it is and should be left alone.”

Imagine you are having an abortion. Imagine you have thought about what you are going to do, wrestled with it in your mind, and know this is really the only way. It really is the best thing you can do for yourself, the father. And you’re faced with THIS.”

Had those comments been made by passers-by, might that have helped support staff and vulnerable patients while at the same time maintaining civil discourse?