Strong and effective racial vilification laws must be retained

This article was first published by the Herald Sun.

Commonwealth Attorney-General George Brandis's reform of Australia's racial vilification laws needs to tread carefully.

It's one thing to adjust the laws to better align them with free speech but reports that suggest the laws will be repealed are concerning.

Banning racial vilification is an important tool in tackling racial discrimination and violence and should be retained.

These are the laws that Andrew Bolt breached when he wrote two articles falsely suggesting that a group of successful light-skinned Aboriginals pretended to be Aboriginal to access certain benefits.

That case triggered the current debate that has led to Brandis's promised reforms.

At its core, this debate is about the conflict between two key human rights; freedom of speech and freedom from discrimination.

Freedom of speech is the cornerstone of our democracy. But like most human rights, it is not absolute.

Our laws limit our speech and expression in many areas like defamation, false advertising, censorship and threats to kill.

The challenge is where to draw the line between protecting free speech and protecting against the serious harm that can come from some speech.

It's clear that racial vilification causes serious harm to individuals and society, increasing the likelihood of discrimination and racist violence.

It's also clear that while Australia is generally a multicultural success story, racism is still common.

Beyond the particular incidents of racist abuse on public transport that have captured public attention, research by the Scanlon Foundation, VicHealth and others have documented widespread racial discrimination.

Federal racial vilification legislation currently makes it unlawful to say something that is reasonably likely to "offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate" another person or group because of their race.

Brandis has pledged to change that, saying "you cannot have a situation in a liberal democracy in which the expression of an opinion is rendered unlawful because somebody else ... finds it offensive or insulting''.

There is, of course, no general right not to be offended or insulted. The price of free speech is that generally people should be able to say offensive things.

But we do, as a society, accept that there should be a limit and some offensive things should be banned.

Just like our criminal laws ban offensive language and our workplace laws ban offensive speech that sexually harasses someone, our discrimination laws should ban seriously offensive racial vilification.

That is in line with Australia's legal obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights to prohibit "any advocacy of racial hatred that incites discrimination, hostility or violence".

It would be a strange situation if you could be charged and fined for swearing in the street, but publishing comments that encourage racial hatred or violence was lawful.

Courts have considered the vilification laws in many cases since they were passed almost 20 years ago. They have made it clear that to be unlawful, the relevant language must be "profound and serious" and go beyond "mere personal hurt, harm or fear".

Examples of breaches of the laws include a comment in a meeting by a Perth councillor that a local Aboriginal group should be shot and a website denying that key aspects of the Holocaust ever happened.

Sydney broadcaster Alan Jones breached the equivalent state vilification laws for reading comments on air that called Lebanese males "vermin" who "infest our shores" saying "let's take the gloves off and make life a collective hell for these bastards".

These are blatantly racist public comments that can spread racial hate and worse still, racially motivated violence. It's right for our laws to try to stop them.

Behind each of the cases that make it to court are many hundreds more complaints that are successfully resolved each year through mediation by the Australian Human Rights Commission. Worryingly, those complaints increased 59 per cent last year.

The laws have important safeguards built into them. Because they aim to stop incitement of racial hatred, they apply only to things said or done in public. If you say something deeply racially offensive in private, the laws won't intervene.

There is also a broad free speech safeguard for anything done reasonably and in good faith in a range of areas including artistic, scientific and academic works and commenting on public interest matters.

Cases that have been protected under those safeguards include a cartoon, a comedy routine and a book by Pauline Hanson in which she said that Aboriginal people were being unfairly favoured by government.

We should have a debate about these laws and we should look at amending them so they only capture serious cases of racial hate speech.

But repealing the laws entirely would be a mistake.

Hugh de Kretser is executive director of the Human Rights Law Centre.
He is on Twitter @hughdekretser