Bolt case highlights discriminatory act
The laws that allowed Andrew Bolt to be pursued through the courts for expressing an unfashionable opinion stifle freedom of speech and do not even meet their own airy goals.
First introduced in 1975 and amended to widen its scope in 1995, the Racial Discrimination Act has stated aims which few could quarrel with: no fair-minded person thinks that racial discrimination is a good thing.
But it is another thing entirely to argue that the Government has a role in policing opinions which it does not approve of.
It is a risky step to grant government the power to decide what can be discussed and debated in a democracy. A free society is best preserved by allowing controversial opinions to flourish in an open debate. Social attitudes change over time, and what government may regard as heretical in one generation may be accepted wisdom in another. Prematurely outlawing discussion on a controversial topic is an attempt by government to freeze social attitudes in time by limiting debate.
For all the cute half-excuses - for instance, Andrew Bolt isn't really silenced because he still has a TV show, or can still speak because the court hasn't ruled that he can't - it is very clear that the effect of this case is to place a heavy burden on those who wish to discuss this sensitive topic.
Let's remember that a journalist, who wrote a couple of controversial articles, had to endure months of court hearings and legal uncertainty, and his employer was hit by a legal bill likely to reach into the hundreds of thousands of dollars. In the meantime, his every public
utterance had to be vetted by lawyers. No-one observing what happened to Andrew Bolt would conclude that sharing their opinions on the topic publicly would be a wise move.
What's more, Bolt has had his reputation smeared in court. He was accused of sympathy for eugenics, and it was suggested that it was views like his that led to the Holocaust. Whatever you think of Bolt, it should be clear that his articles on the topic and his views on these issues do not even remotely fit that description.
These attacks on him by lawyers for the applicants were grossly over the top. It would be hypocritical to on the one hand defend Bolt's freedom of speech and suggest that anyone else's freedom to respond to Bolt - even in such an outrageous way - should be curtailed.
Indeed, if they felt so strongly about the topic, in a free society those who disagreed with Bolt should be free to write articles or deliver speeches condemning him in whatever tone they see fit. But by elevating a public debate, even a heated one, to a legal fight in a court of law, this act gives much greater credence to the political rantings of left-wing lawyers, and a platform which they do not deserve.
It's also far from clear that these laws will contribute to racial harmony or understanding in any way. Providing people with additional avenues to sue each other is a bizarre way to combat tension and disagreement in the community. The likely outcome of such proceedings is simply to entrench the positions of each side and increase animosity between them.
Aside from the Bolt case, we have already seen similar laws used in Victoria by religious groups to sue each other. Placing public debate about controversial topics within the legal system, and signalling to the community that this is the final place for resolution of controversial views, we simply discourage dialogue and encourage a litigious culture of legal warfare. It is not clear why anyone would think that this process would increase community harmony, rather than undermine it.
Even the most objectionable views are unlikely to be swayed by a stinging rebuke from a judge. Even if the courts were successful in preventing their public airing, they will not make the beliefs behind them disappear. A far more constructive - and less draconian - way of tackling speech that offends is to rebut it and articulate a convincing case against it.
To witness all this and still claim that freedom of speech has not been affected, as some have done, requires an extreme disingenuousness or a casual disregard for the importance of free speech. Yesterday the refrain 'I support freedom of speech, but...' was all too common. There can be no 'but'. Freedom of speech means nothing if it is only for people who you like, ideas you agree with and topics no-one cares about. Freedom of speech matters precisely when someone is offended - that is when a society's commitment to the principle is really tested. Disturbingly, the Racial Discriminatiom Act led a court to elevate the right not to be offended above the right to freedom of speech.
Whilst it is regrettable that people are offended in public debate on occasions, there should be no right in a free society to not be offended. It should certainly never trump freedom of speech.
It is now clear this act is not consistent with support for freedom of speech, nor with Australian's attitudes on the topic, if the Institute of Public Affairs poll this week is any guide. It's time that this act was substantially amended to ensure this never happens again.