What would the repeal of section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act symbolise? It is a sign the debate has progressed that columnist Waleed Aly and Race Discrimination Commissioner Tim Soutphommasane, both writing in Fairfax Media last week, now focus their objections to Attorney-General George Brandis’ proposed reform on the symbolism of such a move, instead of its practical effects.
Section 18C makes it unlawful to offend, insult, humiliate and intimidate someone on the basis of their racial or ethnic origin. Introducing the provision in 1994, the then attorney-general Michael Lavarch said it would be a “safety net for racial harmony”.
But two decades later, no serious person argues the aggregate level of bigotry in Australia has been affected one bit by section 18C. As Aly admitted: “We’re not exactly playing for cutthroat stakes.”
The proposed reforms are not about the “right to be a bigot”; they are about whether Australians should be able to sue each other for racism. And that is a much narrower question. Few people have the resources or inclination to litigate speech. No wonder the most articulate defenders of section 18C now focus on its symbolism.
But the symbolism is a two-way street. The proposed reforms are not just designed to protect freedom of speech. They appear to be written in a way to suggest that free speech is a basic democratic virtue.
How so? The core of Brandis’ proposal is a new defence to the accusation of racial vilification if it occurs in a discussion of “any political, social, cultural, religious, artistic, academic or scientific matter”. This distinguishes it from the existing defence, which requires the political discussion to be “reasonable” and made in “good faith”.
The intuition here is that your right to participate in public debate does not hinge on whether a Federal Court judge believes you are participating reasonably, or what your motives are. It is a fundamentally democratic change. The High Court has rightly found that the very foundation of our liberal democracy is a right to speak freely on matters of political importance. Brandis’ proposals extend that observation to all areas of public interest: cultural, social, religious and so forth. And doing so is symbolism, which everybody – including those who section 18C was originally designed to protect – should have an abiding interest in.
Human rights exist to protect the minority against the whims of the majority. To defend free speech is to recognise that no ideas are sacrosanct, that all ideas can be challenged. Historically, free expression has been one of the strongest weapons for pluralism. Speech rights are most necessary for the weak, not the powerful.
Nobody denies the harm of hate speech. But nor should anybody deny the necessity of protecting free expression for the maintenance of a democratic system and as a basic individual right.
Indeed, it is surprising the same human rights bodies lining up to oppose Brandis are also the strongest advocates of an Australian bill of rights. Any bill of rights would have a right to free speech. What if this right made section 18C invalid? Certainly, that has been the result of the United States’ First Amendment, which has made anti-hate speech laws unconstitutional.
Brandis’ reforms are carefully written. They appear to be designed to straddle two famous controversies. The first is the Andrew Bolt articles on light-skinned Aboriginal people, which were found to have been unlawful under section 18C in 2011.
The amendments have been tailored to cover all the major issues raised by the judge in that case. Brandis wants to clarify that the word intimidation means physical intimidation, reset the “reasonable person” test to mean a reasonable member of the Australian community, and make sure the free speech exemption does not rely on a judge’s feelings about what constitutes good faith. The Bolt columns would be perfectly lawful under the Brandis reforms.
The other controversy was when a 13-year-old girl yelled “You’re an ape” at Adam Goodes at an AFL match in May last year. The proposed new anti-vilification provision is designed to keep speech such as this unlawful. The girl was not commenting on a matter of public interest.
Goodes did not sue. He made his case against bigotry in the public arena. But many section 18C cases are like the Goodes incident: verbal altercations and family feuds that involve some sort of racial slur. Under the Brandis proposals, they are still supposed to be unlawful. The theory is that such abuse has no democratic merit.
Yes, the Abbott government should reform laws that constrain freedom of speech across the board. And certainly, it should not be proposing to censor social media as part of its anti-cyber bullying proposals. But that this government’s defence of free speech is less than comprehensive is no argument against reforming section 18C.
Soutphommasane and Aly are right. The symbolism of getting the courts out of the business of regulating public debate would be profound, and profoundly democratic.