'Free speech' is no excuse for racist comments

Andrew Bolt at Melbourne's Federal Court.

Andrew Bolt at Melbourne's Federal Court.

The first time I published an article I was sent some abhorrently racist messages from people who obviously had a problem with an Aboriginal woman expressing views in the public sphere. I remember taking small comfort in two things: there were people who felt my views were worth discussing (as demonstrated by some insightful responses), and that there were laws I could use to take action should I experience such vilification again.

But recently, Senator George Brandis announced plans to introduce legislation to repeal Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act (RDA) so that offensive and insulting speech is no longer considered to be racial vilification. Additionally, the rest of the provisions under 18C, including it also being unlawful to intimidate and humiliate others based on race, are being examined for amendment or removal as well.  

Leading the media discussion around the repeal of these laws is mainstream columnist Andrew Bolt. In what was the highest profile case of the RDA being applied in recent times, Bolt was found to have breached the act in question where he accused selected fair-skinned Aboriginal people of using their heritage to wrongfully profiteer.

Since then Bolt has argued this ruling was a breach of his own ability to engage in free speech; stating so publicly, and via his blog. Never mind that his pieces were legally found to contain untruths or that the judge has concluded that “racially prejudiced views had been reinforced, encouraged or emboldened” by his articles. Shall we even bother with the irony of a man complaining of being ‘silenced’ despite having his own column, books, blog, TV show and regular radio appearances?  

Advertisement

So how best to apply liberal democratic principles, which are supposed to protect the rights of minorities as well as the rights of individuals, in a nation that prides itself on the concept of a “fair go” for all?  What’s more, if all Section 18C of the RDA does indeed end up getting fully removed – and it becomes completely lawful to offend, insult, humiliate and intimidate racially-marginalised groups – how will this affect the ability of these people to freely participate in society and enjoy the same privileges of “free speech”?

To me, the existence of the RDA in the first place acknowledges that there is a need have provisions that protect the interests of racial minorities in this country. That a “dominant culture” exists and there are consequently sections of the community who are marginalised due to its existence.

It also recognises that the participation of certain groups in Australia may be diminished by experiences of racial vilification. So in order to encourage equal participation of regardless of racial background, there is a need to address racism legally. It’s also a powerful reminder that a “fair go for all” has not yet been achieved, and the RDA ensures there is a legal avenue to pursue to in order to achieve this fairness.

It’s worth pointing out that rather than diminishing “free speech”, the RDA actually ensures that a wider cross-section of the society has the ability to participate in it. It creates a slightly more level playing field so that those who are racially marginalised can express their opinions with little fear of racist retaliation. It also states that vilification on the basis of race is not simply an “opinion” and therefore provides an imperative for the mainstream to construct their opinions more thoughtfully.

“Free speech” is great provided all members of society have the right to enjoy the privilege equally. The truth is, we do not currently have a racially equitable society, nor do we vigilantly ensure that those who are marginalised have the same opportunities to participate fully.

Voltaire may have said “I do not agree with what you have to say, but I'll defend to the death your right to say it” but this rings hollow unless everyone does actually defend that right, particularly for those who need the most defence. Until then, it is reasonable that there are ways for people to seek equity legally.

 

 

 

11 comments

  • Vague and subjective terms like causing "offence" or "insult" should never have been made illegal under the act.

    Removing them fixes a glaring error in the law. Saying things that are false like Bolt did can already be subject to sanction under defamation laws.

    Commenter
    Freddie Frog
    Date and time
    November 13, 2013, 7:34AM
    • I'm sorry Celeste, but I must respectfully disagree.

      Freedom of speech must be paramount in a liberal society and must include the freedom to make oneself wildly unpopular by espousing offensive or insulting speech.

      By allowing idiots like Bolt to express their views, we as society may debate and judge them as incorrect and unsubstantiated. This process actually strengthens our understanding of the issues and what the optimal social view ought to be. By challenging and defending ideas, our understanding of the issues becomes greater.

      Curbs on free speech and the illiberal tendency to silence dissent do not do society a service in the long run.

      Commenter
      Pax
      Location
      Perth
      Date and time
      November 13, 2013, 11:18AM
      • So you're selling the idea of a 'right' not to be offended, portioned out unequally to certain pre-approved minority groups and enforced by state appointed tolerance and diversity commissars. Not buying.

        Freedom of speech is a core western value and one of the oldest rights we have. It is the right we use to demand all our other rights. If your feelings are hurt by something Andrew Bolt says then you can use your freedom of speech to reply.

        Commenter
        Master Cylinder Pants
        Location
        Curl Curl
        Date and time
        November 13, 2013, 11:37AM
        • Freedom of speech is not a "core right" we have. It's not enshrined in our constitution and it's not an excuse for you (or anyone else) to be racially offensive.

          The issue with Andrew Bolt's column was not that it hurt people's feelings. He strongly implied to his many many readers that light-skinned indigenous people - some of whom he named - could not possibly have experienced racism and were therefore only in their positions as a result of "positive discrimination" (which doesn't exist, by the way). He was rightfully found guilty of vilification.

          He is in a position of supreme power with his wide audience and in my view he should not be allowed to use it to incite hatred towards minority groups. Freedom of speech doesn't even come into it.

          Commenter
          Evey
          Date and time
          November 13, 2013, 1:36PM
        • Evey, Bolt was rightly found guilty and prosecuted under defamation laws, not under this section of the RDA that outlines offensive speech.
          This section not existing would have had not bearing on the outcome of that case.

          Commenter
          Markus
          Location
          Canberra
          Date and time
          November 13, 2013, 2:49PM
      • The idea that someone in a position of political power could actively enable racism in this country makes me feel physically ill. I cannot describe how ashamed I will feel to be Australian if this Section is repealed.

        Commenter
        Kitty
        Location
        Melbourne
        Date and time
        November 13, 2013, 11:41AM
        • But of course declaring yourself a proudly female biased website excuses sexist comments.

          Commenter
          LindyCupcakes
          Date and time
          November 13, 2013, 11:44AM
          • Maybe Andrew Bolt's blog should display that it is a proudly white (whatever that is) biased website to excuse his 'racist comments'.

            Commenter
            IndignantJunkie
            Date and time
            November 13, 2013, 11:59AM
            • Perhaps Andrew could be absolved of equal accountability in making discriminatory remarks by proclaiming to be a proudly white biased website and allege that the rest of the internet is not that way so he is entitled to his space on the internet to be discriminatory.

              Commenter
              Natasha Fosters
              Date and time
              November 13, 2013, 12:19PM
              • Evelyn Beatrice Hall, not Voltaire... but the principle holds all the same. Censoring those with a voice to bring them down to the level of those who don't is a tall poppy approach to censorship I can't agree with.

                Censorship for free speech, from the Ministry of Truth.

                Commenter
                Stuart
                Date and time
                November 13, 2013, 12:35PM

                More comments

                Comments are now closed