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A Response to ‘Free Speech Matters’

Friday, 6 March, 2015

Matthew Lesh’s original opinion piece can be found here.

 

Free speech does matter. It is important that we share our ideas, experiences and lives with one another. It is an imperative part of the human experience and without the open and free flow of communication we are less than we can be. That is not to say that our actions do not have consequences, for to speak is to act and not all acts are good or justifiable. So to act, or in this case to speak, without consideration would be foolish.

 

We are fortunate in Australia that we have the Racial Discrimination Act and that Section 18 has remained intact. It empowers those most often marginalised and gives them the ability before the courts to voice their grievances if they feel they have been wronged. In the case of Andrew Bolt, the controversial figure chose to single out individuals and told the entirety of Australia that these people are not Aboriginal, like they claim to be, and that they should be ashamed of themselves. Even on face value it is clear that there is an unbalanced power dynamic here. One is the loudest right wing voice in the mainstream media, an author and television host. The second were a small collection of high achieving yet relatively anonymous individuals who woke up one morning at the centre Bolt’s gaze. In any other context this would be tantamount to bullying, but instead Bolt became a martyr for those who want the right to be a bigot.

 

In accordance with the strange fascination with this particular case, the facts and actual outcomes are often forgotten or twisted. Bolt was found guilty but his views can still be read in their original location with a conciliatory preface. (I would tell you to Google it but I don’t want to give them the ad revenue.) Moreover, Bolt was only punished with the sum of legal costs, a ban on republishing the offensive article (but no one was required to remove it), and worst of all, being compelled to make an apology, though I’m sure it was an empty one. Bolt was free to continue to write, and indeed he does so still. The reality is that Bolt was reprimanded for his actions only retrospectively – there was no ‘silencing’.

 

Here in Australia the Racial Discrimination Act does much more than empower those who don’t have Herald Sun columns. It also serves to curb discrimination of all types. From the workplace to schools to everywhere in between, the RDA lets Australia know that being a racist bully is not okay and that if you are bullied, you can do something about it. If given the choice between enabling a bully and putting them in the naughty corner, I know what I would choose.

 

In a fair and balanced society it would be prudent to give a voice to those who don’t often get the chance to speak aloud. In the case of Bolt, one of the most prominent media figures in the country chose to tell a person with fair skin they can’t possibly be a real Aboriginal. Luckily it’s not Bolt’s place to dictate anyone else’s identity or infringe upon their lives. Sections 18B though E reminded Australia that Bolt can’t get away with whatever he wants and that there are consequences if you try to victimise a person because of their race. I am proud to live in a country that provides an opportunity for the little guy to be heard too. If anything, that is true freedom.

 

In an ideal world we wouldn’t need racial discrimination laws, but our world is not ideal. Until we reach a time and place where these laws are unnecessary, they should remain intact. I eagerly await that day.