The Alison Thorne case: Australian teacher fights for free speech

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A teacher’s right to speak publicly on controversial issues is at the heart of a battle being waged by Australian school teacher and lesbian socialist feminist Alison Thorne.

On one side are Thorne, her union, civil liberties advocates, and feminist and lesbian/gay activists; on the other are vacillating public officials and a rightwing radio station bent on driving Thorne out of her profession.

Trial by media

The furor erupted when Thorne, a secondary-school teacher at Glenroy Technical School in Melbourne, Victoria, was interviewed by broadcaster Mike Eddmonds from 3AW radio station regarding the November 5, 1983 arrests of nine gay activists in the Pedophile Support Group, a discussion and consciousness-raising organization.

Speaking for the Victorian Gay Legal Rights Coalition, Thorne deplored the arrests as part of an anti-gay witchhunt. She labeled the vague and archaic “conspiracy to corrupt public morals” charge leveled against the nine men as a dangerous threat to civil liberties. And she stated that while she was vehemently opposed to the sexual exploitation of children, she questioned the necessity for age of consent laws.

The following day, 3AW talkshow host Derryn Hinch repeatedly broadcast an edited version of the interview. He identified Thorne as a teacher, declaring, “I would not let this woman teach my child.”

The interview was pounced upon by the news media in Victoria. Sensationalist newspapers ran lurid frontpage headlines about the “Sex at Ten” schoolteacher. Television reporters hounded her at home and in the classroom.

A statement issued by Thorne’s lawyers on her behalf defended her right to speak out and stated that the interview presented a “distorted and inaccurate picture” of her views. This was universally ignored by the rightwing media, which was far more interested in whipping up anti-gay hysteria.

Some voices of reason emerged, however. Justice Kirby, chairman of the Australian Law Reform Commission, stated that while an arbitrary age of legal consent is convenient, “it is not always relevant or just.” Responding to the media blitz against Thorne, he added, “a person should [not) be punished for making the suggestion [to lower the age of consent) by denunciation in the media.”

Initially, Victorian Minister of Education Robert Fordham, for the Australian Labor Party (ALP), agreed. He defended Thorne’s right to free speech when, in state parliament, the reactionary Liberal Party called for her firing.

But Fordham soon capitulated. On November 11, despite support for Thorne from students and parents, he “temporarily” transferred her to administrative duties in the Victorian Department of Education.

A vigorous defense

The battle to win Thorne’s rein statement has won widespread support. The Technical Teachers Union of

Victoria (TTUV) backs Thorne’s fight as a civil liberties issue crucial to all public employees. The union Executive adopted a policy statement shortly after Thorne’s transfer which asserts that “the TTUV believes that teachers should have the right to make public comments on any issue they see fit.” The union agrees with Justice Kirby on the need for rational and sensible discussion of age of consent laws.

A TTUV-sponsored defense committee, comprised of union members, civil libertarians, and lesbian/gay activists, has organized to keep up the pressure on Fordham.

One important avenue of pressure is through the Minister’s party itself. The ALP includes support for gay rights in its platform, and Thorne supporters have won the endorsements of six ALP locals for the call to reinstate her.

Other support for Thorne includes: the Victorian Council for Civil Liberties; Victorian AIDS Action Group; the Freedom Socialist Party; Radical Women; Stonewall Collective; Gay Solidarity Group; and the Victorian Secondary Teachers Association.

Hundreds of petitions and letters have been sent to Fordham on behalf of Thorne, and her case has been widely covered in the movement press.

Fighting on two fronts

Almost a year after her transfer, Thorne has still not been reinstated, despite the fact that all conspiracy charges against the Pedophile Support Group were dropped in May.

In January, Fordham told Thorne that she could return to teaching if she found a school that would take her. Three schools offered immediate employment, but the Minister reneged on his promise, saying her case was still too controversial.

Then, on April 10, while negotiations continued between TTUV and Fordham, Thorne was hit with a suit by Derryn Hinch and 3AW radio, charging her with libel because of her statement that they had maliciously edited her radio interview. TTUV lawyers are defending Thorne in this suit, which has not yet gone to court.

3AW’s outrageous suit underscores the free speech issues in Thorne’s fight. By maintaining pressure on the Minister of Education to keep Thorne out of the classroom, and by dragging Thorne and TTUV through a lengthy, expensive, and possibly ruinous court fight, the notoriously anti-union station hopes to intimidate all public employees from speaking out on controversial subjects.

Thorne and her supporters are determined to fight this latest assault. They urge civil liberties advocates to contact Derryn Hinch, c/o 3AW, 382 Latrove St., Melbourne, VIC 3000, Australia, and demand that the suit be dropped immediately.

Letters calling for Thorne’s reinstatement are also needed to Minister Fordham, c/o Parliament House, Sprint St., Melbourne, Victoria 3000, Australia. Copies of these letters should be sent to the Alison Thorne Defense Committee, Box 334, Fitzroy, Victoria 3065, Australia.

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