More on Freedom of Speech

By Legal Eagle

Should an opera containing a scene featuring the severed head of Muhammed (along with those of Jesus, Buddha and Poseidon) be cancelled? Apparently, Deutsche Oper in Berlin has removed the opera Idomeneo from its autumn schedule following security concerns.

I thought it was particularly interesting that the leader of the Islamic Council in Germany, Ali Kizilkaya, said that the scene could be offensive to Muslims, but he reportedly continued:

“Nevertheless, of course, I think it is horrible that one has to be afraid. That is not the right way to open dialogue.”

Thank you, Mr Kizilkaya. Well said. Personally, no matter how offensive an image may be, I don’t think threatening to kill or hurt people is the way to respond to these kind of issues.

  • Could artistic images which are regarded as blasphemous be banned by a Court?
  • A separate question: should we ban the publication of artistic images which are regarded as blasphemous on a policy basis?

It’s interesting to think about this issue in the context of previous incidents which have raised concerns of various religious communities in Australia. The answer to the first question seems to be that there is no law of blasphemy in Australia.

The law of blasphemy and ‘Piss Christ’

In 1997, the National Gallery of Victoria exhibited Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ, a photograph of a crucified Jesus suspended in urine. This image was offensive to many Christians. On 8 October 1997, Archbishop George Pell sought an injunction to restrain the exhibition on the basis of blasphemous libel. It seems that blasphemous libel would not cover any religion except Christianity. On 9 October 1997, in Pell v The Council of Trustees of National Gallery of Victoria [1998] 2 VR 391, Harper J refused the injunction. In light of this decision, it seems doubtful that blasphemous libel exists in Victoria. At page 396, Harper J stated:

The question whether this photograph is indecent or obscene is, given its religious context, and given that the court must have regard to contemporary standards in a multicultural, partly secular and largely tolerant, if not permissive, society, is not easy. The fact that the indecent or obscene quality of the photograph comes not from the image as such, but from its title and the viewer’s knowledge of its background, does not make the task easier.

Keep this statement in mind while reading the next section of the blog about anti-Semitic and Islamophobic cartoons.

In the event, the exhibition opened on 11 October 1997, during which a 56 year old man attempted to attack the photograph, but was prevented from doing so. The next day, on 12 October 1997, two young men successfully attacked the photograph with a hammer and the exhibition had to be closed. Here is a link to an article describing the legal issues in greater detail.

Policy considerations – Anti-Semitic and Islamophobic cartoon controversy

In May 2002, Age editor Michael Gawenda refused to run Michael Leunig’s cartoon which paralleled the behaviour of modern day Israel to the behaviour of the Nazis in the Holocaust. In a bizarre twist, earlier this year someone from Chaser submitted this cartoon to a “Holocaust Denial Cartoon Competition” in an Iranian newspaper, Hamshahri. The contest was stated to be in reponse to the Jyllands-Posten cartoons mentioned below. Leunig’s cartoon was gladly accepted, but later withdrawn after it was discovered that he had not intended to submit it.

In September 2005, Danish Newspaper Jyllands-Posten ran cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammed. This provoked angry reactions by some Islamic countries and some Muslims living in Europe. There were riots and attacks on Danish and Norwegian embassies. There was little reaction by Australian Muslims. The idea behind the publication of these cartoons was to expose the way in which newspapers were happy to publish material offending any religious group except Muslims. The theory was that people were afraid of offending Islam because they did not want to provoke a violent reaction – and a violent reaction was what resulted. I think that Mr Kizilkaya hit the nail on the head in his comments Idomeneo the start of this post. It is horrible to make people afraid. And it is not a good way to start sensible and reasoned discussion.

AIJAC has a summary of editorial responses to both the Holocaust cartoon furore and the Mohammed cartoon furore.

Personally, I don’t think any of the images mentioned above are meritorious from an artistic perspective, nor are they particularly subtle or intelligent commentaries on the religions involved. I should admit that I am a secular woman, so perhaps to an extent I do not quite understand the passion that such images can evoke.

It seems to me that, logically, you should decide whether or not you are not going to tolerate artistic images which are potentially blasphemous towards any or all religions. Whatever policy is adopted, it should not differ from religion to religion.

From a personal perspective, I would tend towards allowing the publication of the images. I believe that as a modern secular democratic state, Australia should have free speech and freedom to comment on the way in which various religions and groups operate. However, I acknowledge that in doing so, this may result in offence to some members of particular religious communities. I welcome comments from readers who feel otherwise – after all, this post is about freedom of speech!


  1. ky
    Posted September 28, 2006 at 1:04 pm | Permalink

    Well perhaps they should ban The Magic Flute as well given the negative references of Catholicism as represented by the Queen of the Night in that opera.

  2. Legal Eagle
    Posted September 28, 2006 at 1:08 pm | Permalink

    Funny you should say that – I just found an article in The Times which considers the Deutsche Oper decision, but also lists other furores over opera and art, including a scandal over Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro – have a look at the article here

  3. -k.
    Posted September 28, 2006 at 3:56 pm | Permalink

    Brilliant post. It actually got me thinking (and posting) about a recent experience at my workplace. A pro-skater came to talk to the students about ‘positive decisions’. We, the staff, were not told it was to take a Christian slant until he started speaking. It shocked and saddened me, as as a secular school, where is the balance in this?

Post a Comment

Your email is never published nor shared. Required fields are marked *