Unrestricted Freedom of Speech without Interference from the Military or Police.

The right to ‘freedom of speech’ is a long-standing tradition in Western democracies; in the Australian context it can mean the right of an individual to have direct access to the general public and ‘speak’, that is to stand on a soapbox and orate, lecture to and express one’s truth to those who are prepared to listen. This was one of the bases of the fearless and charismatic Emma Miller’s political power. She could reach out to new audiences and further educate others. In Brisbane, the place for political leaders and intellectuals was often the Botanical Gardens in the Domain; Sydney had a similar ‘Domain’; and in Melbourne crowds mostly congregated on the ‘Yarra Bank’. Yet during World War One, unrestricted freedom of speech was under threat. There was a permit system in place.

A deputation to the Government was formed through a loose association of groups. The Women’s Peace Army chose Emma Miller as their representative. It was a very serious concern; the WPA had been refused permission by the Commissioner of Police to speak in the street on a Sunday night.

This deputation requested ‘unrestricted freedom of speech without interference from either the military or the police’ meeting with the Queensland home secretary, John Huxham. It included representatives of the Australian Peace Alliance, the Australian Socialist Party and the unions, including the International Workers of the World and the Australian Worker’s Union. Emma Miller, the ‘grand old woman of Queensland’ was a veteran, well known for speaking out, and was very highly regarded by her younger colleagues.

‘The spectacle of Mrs Miller appealing for free speech should impress Mr Huxham very much’, said one of the contingent. It was a large deputation of over forty people.[1] Emma Miller spoke for the Women’s Peace Army. She told of how the WPA had received a written reply from the police refusing her request to speak.

‘If they could not speak now, with a Labour Government in office, when could they speak? And Mr Huxham also should remember that they should not be interfered with by the military’.[2]

‘That is a matter for the Federal Government’, replied Mr Huxham.

‘Oh, yes, I know that’, replied Emma Miller.

Emma Miller knew John Huxham very well. She and his wife had worked closely together on the rights of working women and the right of women to vote.

‘Give us a place where we can go on Sunday afternoons’, Emma Miller interjected during the speeches by other delegates.

‘The women are so backward because they have no place to go. After the war the women will have to be dealt with to prevent their being sweated’.[3] It was a timely suggestion, a compromise, if the government could allow them at least four places across Brisbane where soapboxes were allowed, some measure of ‘free speech’ could be retained. But it was only a few years after the euphoria and disaster of the 1912 general strike in Brisbane, the first general strike in the Western world which had been undermined and sabotaged by the Commissioner of Police, Cahill. The labour movement wanted him gone; the police should not be able to determine whether they had the right to speak.

‘To whom would you give it’, asked John Huxham.[4]

‘Let it be in the hands of the Government’, responded Emma Miller, ‘because we can deal with them afterwards’.

John Huxham promised to take the deputation’s request to the state Cabinet, but little could they all foresee the coming battles with the federal government about surveillance, censorship and harassment of speakers.

 

 

 

 


[1] ‘Claim for Free Speech’, Telegraph, 29 July 1916, p. 9.

[2] ‘Claim for Free Speech’, Telegraph, 29 July 1916, p. 9.

[3] ‘Freedom of Speech’, Courier, 29 July 1916, p. 4.

[4] ‘Claim for Free Speech’, Telegraph, 29 July 1916, p. 9.

 

 

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