Is the right to freedom of speech more important than the right to freedom from racial discrimination?

It was an election “promise”. Most turned a blind eye, or maybe people just didn’t care. The coalition were elected and people warned that it would happen. Everyone was told to calm their respective farms because it hadn’t actually happened yet. Now it has. Amongst the many social issues that the Abbott government have labelled as not being a “priority” in their first term of government, they have made repealing section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act (1975) of primary importance.

Why all the fuss? In 2009, Andrew Bolt wrote an article titled “It’s so hip to be black” that suggested that Indigenous Australians’ utilise their race in order to be more “fashionable” in the arts and political arena. Not only did the article spark outrage from the Aboriginal community, but it resulted in a controversial court case still debated today.

Essentially, the court case held that Bolt’s article was in breach of s18C of the Racial Discrimination Act (1975) which deems a person’s actions unlawful where they are reasonably likely to “humiliate”, “offend”, “discriminate” or “insult” someone based upon their culture, race or religion. Note that this piece of legislation does not limit individuals expressing their opinion “in private”. It is primarily aimed at those expressing offensive opinions in public. This ruling sparked widespread discourse within the executive and judicial arm of government.

The debate came to a blazing head following Bolt’s trial in 2011. The Liberal party stated that the basis of democracy is founded upon the principle that society (including business owners) have the right to discriminate upon someone based on their race. The freedom from someone offending your culture, religion race and identity is a right recondary to the freedom of speech

Australia’s Attorney-General, George Brandis is the man behind these proposed changes, insisting that ”it [s18C] enables the censorship of free speech”. In defence of these changes, Tony Abbott has declared that the right to the freedom of speech supersedes the right to be free from oppression, hatred, vilification and discrimination because the Australian people are entitled to be “passionate”. He argues, It’s the freedom to write badly and rudely. It’s the freedom to be obnoxious and objectionable. Free speech is not bland speech. Often, it’s pretty rough speech because people are entitled to be passionate when they are arguing for what they believe to be important and necessary. Speech that has to be inoffensive would be unerringly politically correct but it would not be free.”

The Race Discrimination Commissioner, Helen Szoke has hit back at these proposed changes, asserting that in a nation as multi-cultural as Australia, the need to provide legal protection for those who suffer at the hands of racial discrimination is necessary. Former Attorney-General, Mark Dreyfus wrote an open letter to the coalition’s promise prior to the election, indicating that it contravenes Australia’s international obligation to the London Declaration on Combatting Anti-Semitism (which Tony Abbott signed himself). In fact, it also technically contravenes Australia’s signatory to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR).

It goes without saying that this is an extremely contentious area of the law, just as all human rights focused debates are. Is it possible to argue that one human right is more important than another? Is it possible to have one law without violating the other, or is that what currently existed before the proposed changes?

Possibly the most uncomfortable part about this proposal is that the Australian population are now faced with a government deciding what human rights are more important to us.

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Article by Cyndall Mcinerney, a Law and Advertising student who aspires to one day live in a world where racial, sexual, cultural and gender-based discrimination are not areas of debate, but fundamentally recognised freedoms. Failing that, she will move to Antarctica to live with the penguins.

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3 thoughts on “Is the right to freedom of speech more important than the right to freedom from racial discrimination?

  1. To answer the question posed in your header: yes, freedom of speech is much, much, much more important than what you call freedom from racial discrimination. Freedom of speech and thought must be absolute: that is the foundation of classical liberalism, as expounded by J. S. Mill’s On Liberty, which I would strongly advise you and everyone else to read (the second chapter is most relevant). I do have to admit I’m bloody astonished to hear something so principled (and “liberal” in the true sense of the word) come from Tony Abbott, however.

    Now, to move on to your “freedom from racial discrimination”. That can hardly be said to be a freedom: I don’t like what you’re saying, so you’re not allowed to say it – and if you dare to continue speaking in such a manner, I shall fine you or even imprison you. That concept, especially as found in the current law, is ridiculous: any restriction of public or private speech is just that, a restriction, an imposition, a curtailment of freedom. Offence is always taken, never given: you can either choose to be offended, or instead use your own freedom of speech to tell the idiots and racists why they’re wrong.

  2. And to limit freedom of association by forcing people to interact with people they don’t like, or punishing them for associating with people they do like, is just as totalitarian.

  3. if government are so concerned with freedom of speech then lets have a bill of rights, simple, although thats gives us commoners even more rights, I doubt thats the governments intention is it, dumb Australians believe this is for them and our un guaranteed rights to free speech, this guarantees nothing of the sort, this is just a simplistic vote winner to win over simplistic people, more fear mongering along racial lines, im ashamed to call them humans

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