Ian Higgins

Section 18C: What’s really on the menu, and how much it costs

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Approx Reading Time-11Fuss over freedom of speech is leading to a discussion we need to have, with the RDA’s 18C again making headlines of late. But where to stand when both sides of the debate seem equally weighted?

 

You may have read during the week about the proposal to repeal section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act. You may have avoided the discussion altogether because, as “click-bait” goes, the possible repealing of an act you may never have heard of isn’t as sexy as who Ritchie did/didn’t give a rose to on Thursday night. However, the consideration on either side has raised some interesting aspects of free speech and what constitutes criminal behaviour.

What you need to know is that section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act basically says that it is unlawful to do something that is likely to offend, insult or humiliate another person or group based on their race, colour or ethnic origin.

Liberal Senator Corey Bernardi has mooted this week that he wants to remove the words “insult” and “offend” from section 18C via a private member’s bill. Almost every Coalition backbench Senator is reportedly in support.

Senator David Leyonhjelm went one stop further in early August and indicated that he would introduce his own bill, aiming to remove section 18C altogether.

At what point should a government introduce legislation to say “If we don’t at least create repercussions for people spreading potentially dangerous messages, things can get out of hand”? I’m not so sure you can always hide behind freedom of speech.

You may remember that Tony Abbott promised to repeal section 18C in 2013. This was in response to “the Andrew Bolt case” where Mr Bolt was convicted under section 18C, after he published three articles in his Herald Sun column, suggesting that it was fashionable for “fair-skinned people” of diverse ancestry to choose Aboriginal racial identity for the purposes of political influence and career progression. In support of then-PM Abbott’s proposal to repeal section 18C, Attorney-General George Brandis said, “people have the right to be bigots, you know.”

It’s a strange thing to say, but they probably do have that right. I’m not about to go all “freedom of speech” on you and start reading parts of the Constitution while I get the Southern Cross tattooed on me, but I’m of the opinion that if you want to publicly make a complete fool of yourself by vilifying a minority, you should probably be “allowed” to do that.

Leaving the Courthouse in Melbourne at the conclusion of his case, Andrew Bolt said, “This is a terrible day for freedom of speech in this country.”

But I wonder at what point does that become dangerous? At what point should a government introduce legislation to say “If we don’t make this behaviour illegal, unlawful, or at least create repercussions for people spreading potentially dangerous messages, things can get out of hand”? I’m not so sure you can always hide behind freedom of speech.


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One of the biggest problems with the Internet, is that it gives a voice to the idiots. Suddenly, idiots can find other idiots with the same idiotic views and they can band together to create a powerful idiot voice. And it’s always the idiots that shout the loudest. That voice can sway public policy. It can change laws. It can create the sense that this is what the people want. Sometimes the people need protection from themselves.

For instance, Scotland Yard announced in August this year that they will invest £2m into a “thought police” unit to track web users and hunt down online trolls. The establishment of the new unit comes after a surge in reports of racist and sexist abuse on social media. The extent of the crimes on social media ranges from making death threats towards MPs, to fines for threatening to blow up an airport if it closed due to snowfall, to police investigating mother-of-two Debra Burt after writing on a friend’s Facebook page that she wanted to throw an egg at David Cameron.

So where does freedom of speech end and dangerous action begin?

It’s my own view that section 18C isn’t so cut and dry, so black and white, that it can just be culled or manipulated or repealed, without there being long-lasting affects on our society. Sure, I want to live in an Australia where we maybe just lay off the racial vilification for five minutes without needing government intervention. But in the unlikely event of that occurring, we probably need some regulations to guide us through.

The problem in my own mind is that I don’t think it should be illegal to be offensive. (What would that mean for any comedian, for instance?) But I don’t think you can hide behind “freedom of speech” if you say something so inexplicably belligerent that it causes an entire minority offence. Maybe in the case of section 18C, if it ain’t broke, don’t repeal it.

Although, as ever with any conversation in race or religion, it’s never black and white is it?

 

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