By Lawrence Gibbons
More than a thousand people spilled off the footpath outside the Sydney City Police Area Command on Sunday 13 January to protest the arrest of the high profile free speech advocate Danny Lim.
Three armed officers forcibly detained the 74-year-old activist at Barangaroo on the previous Friday. Lim was holding a sign which read “SMILE CAN’T! WHY CAN’T?” For comic effect the A on the placard was printed upside down. He was charged with causing offense, and suffered bruises at the hands of police.
The former Strathfield Councillor was fined $500 in 2015 for displaying a similar sign. In 2017, a District Magistrate overturned the fine, finding that Lim’s use of the word CVN’T “was capable of being construed as being clever or light-hearted”. The same can’t be said of the NSW police force.
The colourful septuagenarian can often be seen standing with milk boards around the city centre. He has become a well-known and much-loved local figure. More than 25,000 people signed up to a Facebook page in support of Lim within 72 hours of his arrest. His lawyer Bryan Wrench indicated that the charges would be contested. Lim is also considering taking action against the police. A crowd-funding page has been established to cover his legal costs.
Outside the Day Street station, protestors were filmed by undercover police as they held signs in support of Lim, with messages including “More Danny Less Nanny” and “FVCK THE COPS. DANNY IS TOPS”. Protestors of all ages – from pensioners to school children – delivered speeches from a plastic milk crate in defence of Lim.
Speakers denounced an increasingly draconian use of force in NSW, where laws have been introduced to limit the right to protest at mining sites and to remove homeless people who assembled to protest in Martin Place. Demonstrators also denounced the use of force by police who have been given ever-increasing powers to search revellers at dance parties.
Australia is the only advanced western nation without a constitutional guarantee of free speech. In the absence of an enshrined Bill or Charter of Rights, Australian courts have limited powers to mitigate the authoritarian impulses of majoritarian rule. As state and federal governments increasingly whittle away at individual liberties, more and more Australians find that their right to assemble, protest and express dissident political viewpoints are under threat.
Without constitutionally protected human rights, the democratic freedoms Australians cherish are increasingly put in jeopardy. In the words of George Orwell, “If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear”.