The numbers speak for themselves. A Fairfax poll in April showed that 88 per cent of people believed it should remain unlawful to offend, insult or humiliate others because of race. An astounding 5600 submissions were made about the government’s exposure draft, with more than 76 per cent of submissions opposing the repeal of section 18C.
The debate during the past year was revealing. The proponents of section 18C’s repeal argued the provision had a chilling effect on free speech. However, one freedom doesn’t exist in isolation. A good society is one in which everyone can be free to live with dignity. Just as we rightly value freedom of expression, so we also value freedom from racial discrimination.
The vast majority of Australians understand that free speech shouldn’t give licence for racial abuse. Most of us grasp that racial vilification can inflict harm on its targets.
Still, some fail to see the human side of the matter. Libertarian free speech advocates say we should expose mouldy racist ugliness to the disinfectant of sunlight. But we shouldn’t talk about freedoms as though it were an undergraduate exercise in philosophical speculation. I’ve yet to come across a target of racial abuse who has welcomed being called a ‘boong’ or ‘gook’ or ‘sand-nigger’ in public for bringing bigotry out into the open.
It is only right that we have laws about public acts of racial vilification. Laws help to set a civil standard for acceptable conduct. In any case, we have many laws that regulate offensive speech. As a society, we accept that criminal summary offence laws can involve convictions for offensive language. We accept that defamation laws mean we can be liable for paying six-figure damages if we offend someone’s reputation. Why shouldn’t we then accept that someone can be held to account for subjecting another person to racial abuse?
As for having a robust public debate on matters of race and identity, the current law already protects free speech through the exemptions in section 18D. Advocates of section 18C’s repeal remain unable to answer one basic question: What is it that you want to say that isn’t currently already protected?
This goes to the heart of the matter. The Racial Discrimination Act isn’t about censorship; it’s about accountability. Exercising one’s freedoms comes with duties and responsibilities. It involves being made to answer for when you infringe upon another’s liberty. Having freedom of speech does not mean having a legal right to be a bigot.
TIM SOUTPHOMMASANE is Race Discrimination Commissioner.
© 2014 Tim Soutphommasane