Letter: Free speech has some boundaries

An edited version of this letter appeared in letter in The Australian – 9 March 2014


Your editorial (6/3) correctly states that, “A free and robust exchange of ideas is essential to democracy” and laudably chastises University of Sydney academic Jake Lynch for attempting to stifle any such exchange via his discriminatory boycotts of Israeli academics. However, its call for the Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs council to also abandon our support for section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act was a complete non-sequitur.

18C poses no threat to the exchange of ideas in democracy. It makes no ideas unlawful – it is concerned only with conduct done because of someone’s race which would cause them “serious and profound” emotional harm. It offers extremely robust defences in section 18D exempting all academic, artistic and scientific work, and any statement, publication or discussion done for any genuine purpose in the public interest.

Your editorial’s assertion that, “Causing offence should not be a crime” involves a complete misunderstanding of how this legislation actually works. 18C creates no criminal offences – its purpose is to give civil recourse to people when bigots diminish the quality of their lives through deliberate racial harassment and intimidation, primarily through conciliation.

If the Australian is genuinely concerned about laws which create a “crime” of causing offense, their ire would be better directed at the various state Summary Offences Acts, all of which criminalise “offensive language”.

18C’s impact should be seen as a whole over its 18 year history and the numerous cases in which it has been employed and not through the singular prism of the Bolt case. The provision has been used effectively against some of the most toxic individuals in this country, and has thus repeatedly contributed constructively to social cohesion and harmony in Australia.

While we remain open to a review of the law and perhaps modest changes designed to enhance its effectiveness, 18C has been a linchpin of Australia’s successful multicultural project, and to remove it entirely is likely to give succour to racists and return victims of racial victimisation to a situation where they have no legal recourse.

Colin Rubenstein, Australia/Israel and Jewish Affairs Council, Melbourne, Vic