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The Bolt case and free speech

Posted September 29, 2011 in category General by Shirley Leitch

I usually blog about higher education matters but today, as a professor of communication, I would like to comment about the recent court case involving Andrew Bolt.

There have been many comments in the media today about Federal Court Justice Mordecai Bromberg's findings that two articles written by Bolt, published in the Herald Sun in 2009, contravened the Racial Discrimination Act.

In his judgement, Justice Bromberg found fair-skinned Aboriginal people were reasonably likely to have been 'offended, insulted, humiliated or intimidated by the imputations conveyed' in the two articles by Bolt.

Whatever the facts of this particular case, I am astounded that some commentators have seen this ruling as an attack on free speech.

Under the United Nations International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, freedom of speech is protected under Article 19 which states:

"1. Everyone shall have the right to hold opinions without interference.
2. Everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of his choice.
3. The exercise of the rights provided for in paragraph 2 of this article carries with it special duties and responsibilities. It may therefore be subject to certain restrictions, but these shall only be such as are provided by law and are necessary:
(a) For respect of the rights or reputations of others;
(b) For the protection of national security or of public order (ordre public), or of public health or morals."

My reading is that section 3(a), which calls for respect of the rights or reputations of others, encompasses attacks on people because of the colour of their skin. Without this provision, free speech becomes a right without any attendant responsibilities. Quite simply, it provides protection for 'hate speech'.

To champion hate speech in the name of free speech is, in the words of George Orwell, 'doublethink', meaning to use a positive expression to mask an ugly motive.

Professor Shirley Leitch

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|Comments [5]


Professor Shirley Leitch makes a great point by referring to United Nations International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights Article 19.3(a). In Australia, freedom of speech has always been subordinate to laws of slander and libel which protect reputations, added to by the Racial Vilification Act of 1975. One would of course expect the publications of the second largest media conglomerate in the world, Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation, to come out swinging in defence of columnist Andrew Bolt, who was found guilty, along with his employer, the Herald Sun, of breaching the Racial Vilification Act in two columns.

What is far more alarming is that the shadow Federal Attorney-General Senator the Hon George Brandis SC has talked up dismantling the law as it stands following Bolt's guilty finding.

'''The fact is today in Australia we are not free and journalists, commentators, ordinary citizens are not free to make critical or unpopular remarks in the course of ordinary political exchange,'' Senator Brandis told Sky News yesterday.

''The law as it was declared by the Federal Court yesterday certainly contains an unacceptable limitation on freedom of political discussion ? we would not like to see the law remain in its current form.'''
(Bolt case spurs Libs to bid for race act revamp, Katharine Murphy, The Age
September 30, 2011.

The fact that Bolt and his publisher clearly vilified a group of people based on skin colour and used incorrect information to do so has been swept aside by Brandis and other commentators. I hope political right-wing polarisation could never be allowed to override the rights of Australians to maintain their reputations insofar as they have done nothing wrong, but are attacked on racial and skin colour grounds. I am certainly no fan of one of the parties mentioned, Geoff Clarke, but nevertheless would never approve attacking him on racial grounds. Prime Minister Rudd apologised to the stolen generations, acknowledging that many were removed from Indigenous families as governmental policy. In the past tribal and language groups have been split up, people used as servants and employees with no wages and other actions taken which resulted in the separation of tribes and the mixing of Indigenous and other racial groups. Through no choice of their own, many Indigenous-identifying people now have fair skin and they should never be seen as lesser people for it.

Jen Jewel Brown
Lecturer/Tutor HASS
Swinburne Hawthorn

Posted by Jen Jewel Brown on October 04, 2011 at 09:15 AM EST #

Thank you Professor Leitch for speaking up on this important issue. Bolt makes his living out of being "topical" so it is not unususl for him to sail close to the wind in areas of discrimination and marginalised thinking. The fact that newspapers are making money out of his "opinion" pieces is the real reason behind his at times offensive commentaries. For him to now cry free speech is a little rich, but probably just an attempt to milk the moment for a bit more attention.

Posted by Rod Stebbing on October 04, 2011 at 09:16 AM EST #

Well said, Shirley. Thank you for your commentary.

Posted by JW on October 04, 2011 at 09:16 AM EST #

I am more concerned about who is deciding what we should read and hear in the press? Why is it left up to a Federal Court judge to punish irresponsible journalism? Censorship is a dangerous tool, we should not fear hateful things that are published as they allow us an opportunity to teach the younger generation why it is not right to say certain things about people.

Posted by Adam on October 06, 2011 at 10:24 AM EST #

Thanks Shirley. Your blog prompted me to reflect on the 'righteous' attitude in Bolt's initial comments on race, and his response to the judgement. He seemed taken aback that he could be punished for speaking freely. Yet his agenda implicitly attacked the freedom of identity of others. Bolt is a man of our time. Global economic and political uncertainties are encouraging fear and loathing (well beyond LA). Old systems and solutions don't seem to have served us very well of late, so I wonder if an ultra-conservative perspective is really the voice we need!?

Posted by Bryan Kidd on October 06, 2011 at 10:24 AM EST #

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