The real cost of free speech

Emily Burley considers the impact of proposed changes to the Racial Discrimination Act.

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PHOTO: Controversial proposed changes to the Racial Discrimination Act would disempower racial minorities in Australia.


Attorney-General George Brandis made headlines last week when he infamously declared Australians “have the right to be bigots”.

The comment came amid plans by the Abbott Government to amend the Racial Discrimination Act, repealing Section 18C. Senator Brandis said the section, which makes it unlawful for someone to publicly “offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate” a person based on their racial or ethnic origin, deals with racial vilification “in the wrong way”.

Senator Brandis said the Government was acting in the interests of free speech. “In a free country people do have rights to say things that other people find offensive or insulting or bigoted,” he said.

The Opposition is against the proposed changes to Section 18C. Senator Brandis’ Labor counterpart, Mark Dreyfus, said the Senator “has clearly revealed today he intends to give a green light to racist hate speech in Australia”.

Senator Brandis referred to the 2011 legal case against conservative media figure Andrew Bolt. Bolt was found to have broken the law over two articles he wrote in 2009 about light-skinned people who identify as Aboriginal.

A Federal Court judge found the articles would have offended the Aboriginal community, were not written in good faith, and contained factual errors. At the time of the ruling, Bolt said it was “a terrible day for free speech in this country”.

Senator Brandis last week said the current law amounts to political censorship. “People like Mr Bolt should be free to express any opinion on a social or a cultural or a political question that they wish to express,” he said.

Deputy Labor Leader Tanya Plibersek asked Prime Minister Tony Abbott if he agreed that people had the “right to be bigots”. While he did not repeat the phrase, Prime Minister Abbott said the Government wants “this country to be a nation where freedom of speech is enjoyed”.

Who does the Racial Discrimination Act really protect?

Few people would deny a fair and democratic society depends on the freedom of speech. However, in response to Senator Brandis’ remarks, many have questioned whom the Racial Discrimination Act truly protects.

Should the responsibility of deciding what is “reasonably likely” to offend or intimidate the minority rest in the hands of the privileged majority? The main criticism in response to the proposed amendment is that it seeks to protect the culturally empowered, rather than the vulnerable people Section 18C was established to protect in 1995.

In fact, political commentator and Australian-born Egyptian Waleed Aly said the removal of Section 18C created “the whitest piece of proposed legislation” he had ever encountered.

Writing for the Sydney Morning Herald, Aly said, “plenty of white people are good at telling coloured people what they should and shouldn’t find racist, without even the slightest awareness that they might not be in prime position to make that call”.

This, I believe, is the issue at the core of the debate. Racist, hateful or offensive speech can never be ‘free,’ when we consider the cost it has on the people it’s aimed at. The repeal of Section 18C would remove the “safety net for racial harmony” then-Attorney-General Michael Lavarch said the law would provide at the time of its introduction.

While the section itself has done little to stop racial vilification (people are racially abused on a daily basis with little or no repercussion), its repeal would disempower minorities and symbolise the consent of such vilification within our society.

WATCH: Attorney-General George Brandis announces proposed changes to the Racial Discrimination Act.


  1. Skye 3 April, 2014 at 13:14 Reply

    These changes are appalling… Waleed is spot on. How can white people decide what should (and shouldn’t) offend ethnic minorities? Great article.

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