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Freedom of Speech or Racist Slander?

by PeakCare on 5th October 2011

Home -> Articles -> 2011 -> October -> Freedom of Speech or Racist Slander?

In a recent edition of PeakCare’s Enews, “In The Loop”, I commented upon a letter that I had sent to the Editor of the Sunday Mail in response to an article by Mr Andrew Bolt entitled “Very sorry state of affairs indeed”.

After submitting my letter to the Editor, a finding was brought down by Federal Court Justice Mordecai Bromberg that Mr Bolt had breached the Racial Discrimination Act in his authoring of two articles published by the Herald Sun in 2009 – “It’s so hip to be black” and “White fellas in the black”.

Unfortunately, the Sunday Mail elected to not publish my letter to the Editor. Perhaps it was thought that the story had now moved on. It would seem that instead of sparking further debate about the racist vilification so often experienced by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, Justice Bromberg’s decision mostly raised the ire of journalists concerned about the implications of this decision in regard to freedom of speech and the rights of columnists (and others) to express an opinion.

So let’s go with the flow and talk about that for a while.

In her Courier Mail article entitled “Bolt decision has a chilling effect”, Ms Madonna King described Mr Bolt as someone who “can be offensive and his comments cruel; the language he uses sometime inflammatory and his arguments often skewed to give evidence to those ideologies his supporters crave and his critics loathe”. Despite this, Ms King nevertheless argues that there are “dangerous consequences” arising from Justice Bromberg’s decision that “might impact on your right to say what you think and ask legitimate questions about issues of public interest”.

Similar sentiments were expressed by Mr David Penbarthy in his Sunday Mail article, “Poor law makes a martyr of Bolt” in which he vigorously stated his disagreement with “what Andrew Bolt says”, but just as vigorously defended “his right to say it”.

Whilst fully respecting the views of both Ms King and Mr Penbarthy concerning the worth of the opinions often expressed by Mr Bolt and also acknowledging their concerns about and commitment to “freedom of speech”, there must surely be a line drawn that distinguishes between the right to freely question, debate and express opinion and the ability to promote opinion based on an untruthful representation of facts or distortions of the truth.

Is this not what Justice Bromberg did? In accordance with the law, he clearly drew that line and reached a determination that Mr Bolt had indeed crossed that line.

This appears to also be the opinion formed by Mr Des Houghton in his Courier Mail article, “Even free speech comes at a price” in which he concluded that “freedom of the speech doesn’t give anyone the right to break the law” and “the best defence of free speech is to curb its excesses”.

Notwithstanding the complexity and importance of the debates that must occur from time to time about freedom of speech, it is unfortunate that this debate has, in many ways, served as a distraction from fully debating and addressing the content of Mr Bolt’s articles.

For as long as Mr Bolt chooses to practise his style of journalism and elects to mis-represent facts and distort the truth concerning the injustices that have been, and continue to be, experienced by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, we must all be prepared to also claim our rights to freedom of speech and publicly state our rejection of his views.

As called for by Mr Bolt himself in his article “Very sorry state of affairs indeed”, let the truth be told. As evidenced by Justice Bromberg’s findings, these truths are far removed from the opinions Mr Bolt has been seeking to promote.

Lindsay Wegener

Executive Director, PeakCare Queensland