BY VIC ALHADEFF
ABC, The Drum
March 26, 2014
Freedom of speech should never mean giving one the freedom to abuse others on the basis of race. And the likelihood of that happening in our country has just increased, writes Vic Alhadeff.
During my career as a newspaper editor, I kept a faded cutting pinned to the noticeboard above my desk.
Easily overlooked, it was insignificant amidst the maelstrom of articles, photographs and Post-it notes littering the canvass of my journalistic universe, each claiming attention for legitimate reasons.
Yet it was that discoloured newspaper cutting to which I returned most frequently – especially when the topic of freedom of speech was propelled into the public discourse, invariably prompting libertarians and fellow freedom-of-speech activists to wax forth on perceived threats to our democracy represented by this or that piece of legislation or restrictive action imposed on a particular individual.
Printed on it was just one sentence, as complex and compelling in its import as it was stark and simple. It read: “The late Justice Lionel Murphy said: ‘Freedom of speech is what is left over after due weight has been accorded to the laws relating to defamation, blasphemy, copyright, sedition, obscenity, use of insulting words, official secrecy, contempt of court and parliament, incitement and censorship’.”
Eleven categories. Eleven categories enshrined in law that impose limits on what we are permitted to say in public. In other words, we do not have absolute freedom of speech, just as we do not enjoy absolute democracy – and nor should we.
Sir Winston Churchill famously observed: “Democracy is the worst form of government – except for all those other forms which have been tried.”
He was right – because it isn’t pure, it isn’t absolute. Those who argue in absolutist terms are either ignoring the cold reality as neatly encapsulated by Justice Murphy or inhabiting a utopia that invests all citizens with the wisdom, commonsense and compassion to treat their compatriots with respect.
Sadly – and notwithstanding the heartfelt cry by 13-year-old Anne Frank while in hiding from the Nazis in an Amsterdam attic that “despite everything, I believe that people are good at heart” – it’s not going to happen.
Ask Ben Barba, the gifted footballer who was the target of a despicable racist attack on Instagram by an 18-year-old player, prompting his father to point out that his son had been frequently spat on during matches last year.
Or Sydney Swans captain and current Australian of The Year, Adam Goodes, who was racially abused by a young spectator during a game. Or Sydney Football Club’s Ali Abbas, who said he was the victim of slurs against his culture and religion. Or Timana Tahu, who walked out on the NSW State of Origin squad in protest at a racial slur directed at Greg Inglis, a fellow-Aboriginal player in the Queensland team.
Nor is the abuse confined to the sports arena. Fanny Desaintjores, riding on a Melbourne bus, began singing in French, was sworn at, threatened with having her breasts cut off and warned to speak English or die.
And ABC newsreader Jeremy Fernandez – of Malaysian background – racially abused while travelling on a bus with his daughter and then, bizarrely, ordered by the driver to move to another seat while the abusive woman was left in her place.
“I’m not moving because it has turned into a racial issue,” he tweeted. “I’m not going anywhere, I’ve not done anything wrong. Anyone who says racism is dying is well and truly mistaken.”
He needed to “hold his nerve” for his daughter’s sake, he added.
All of which renders the Federal Attorney-General’s remark that everyone has the right to be bigoted not only problematic, but short-sighted and harmful. Everyone does have the right to be bigoted and to harbour racist views in private, but there is a critical difference between that and acting on those views and causing harm to others.
That is where the limits of freedom are reached – and breached. Which renders the mooted repeal of Section 18C of the federal Racial Discrimination Act a retrograde measure that significantly weakens protections against racist abuse that have been in place for almost two decades, including standing the test of time during the Howard administration.
It sends a message that racism could effectively be given a free pass if uttered in the course of public discussion, while the message we should be hearing is how harmful racial bigotry can be to those against whom it is directed and how destructive it is to our society.
The NSW Community Relations Commission is all about intercultural harmony, it is about mutual respect between every member of this great nation. Yet we see the effects of the absence of the same in the workplace, in the marketplace and in public debate. It is no accident that a remarkably broad coalition of community groups has coalesced in response to these proposed legislative changes, such is the depth of grassroots concern.
“We want a society where freedom of speech can flourish,” said the Attorney-General’s press release heralding the announcement. So do we all. But freedom of speech should never mean giving one the freedom to abuse others on the basis of race. And the likelihood of that happening in our country has just increased.
Vic Alhadeff is chairman of the NSW Community Relations Commission. Follow him on Twitter at @VicAlhadeff.
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