There’s a lot of talk at the moment about freedom of speech, and not all of it makes sense. The Federal Government wants to relax the prohibitions on hate speech in the Racial Discrimination Act, but at the same time it is calling for new laws to restrict what environmentalists can say in public debate.

The government wants to hold environmentalists accountable for their claims when they’re protesting against corporate conduct, and it says that amending the Competition and Consumer Act is the way to make it happen. Protesters who don’t get their facts straight are bad for business and bad for the economy.

Seems like a fair enough proposition. But we’re not sure that the plan will work.

The first part of the government’s plan is to amend the CCA rules about secondary boycotts. These are already prohibited but there is an exception for boycotts with a purpose of environmental protection. The plan is to remove the exception.

We don’t think this will make much difference. The ban on secondary boycotts doesn’t apply to a lot of environmental lobbying activity in the first place.  It applies only to activity which actually hinders or prevents the supply of goods or services. It’s a massive stretch to say that this would include an advertising or social media campaign calling for a consumer boycott. The courts haven’t considered this type of example but we don’t think it’s a contravention of the CCA. Tying yourself to a tree might be a different story.

The next part of the government’s plan is to extend the operation of misleading or deceptive conduct laws to cover environmental lobbying.  As things stand, lobbyists often fall outside the application of the rules because they’re not acting ‘in trade or commerce’. Any move to widen the scope outside ‘trade or commerce’ to include conduct of the protest variety would be truly radical and have all sorts of unforeseen consequences. And it’d be a truly bizarre thing for a free speech-loving Liberal government to do.

Maybe the law’s not the answer to this particular question. Businesses can fight fire with fire and respond to environmentalists with media campaigns of their own.  And social media can hold the lobbyists accountable for what they say.