Free speech – at what cost?

Yesterday, a racist Facebook page depicting deeply offensive, denigrating “memes” of Indigenous Australia attracted a flurry of attention – largely thanks the efforts of online petitioning sites which directed the public to demand Facebook remove the page.

The Facebook page highlighted the entrenched and systematic racism that is sadly very much alive in Australia, and enforced the media driven perception of Indigenous people as petrol sniffing, dirty, welfare-dependent and primitive.

Historically, Indigenous people have suffered immensely at the hands of the white Australians who took over Australia and destroyed almost every part of their existence. My predecessors took the land Indigenous people used to hunt, gather and to which they have a deep spiritual connection; my predecessors took Indigenous children from their families and my predecessors put Indigenous children in schools where they were denied their language and their spirituality. This trauma is ongoing; as I do not doubt it would be for me had my mother been ripped from her family, raised on a reserve and lost her language and culture only to face a future which statistics indicate will be shorter and of a lower quality than that of my non-Indigenous peers.

Australia’s past is also marred with the White Australia Policy which was based on a desire to exclude “Asiatics” or “coloureds” from Australia. At the time it was applauded as ‘the greatest thing we have achieved’ by Prime Minister William Morris Hughes in 1919.

Thankfully – Australia is not monochrome nor mono-cultural and most of us seem to have realized that the White Australia Policy was so far from “the greatest thing we have ever achieved” and so much closer to being a horrific blemish in our history that demonstrated the capacity for a whole nation of people to be cruel and ignorant and inhumane.

The [Controversial Humor] Aboriginal Memes Facebook page is a devastating reminder that at least the +4000 people who liked the page, continue to perpetuate the racist attitudes that caused the suffering of so many generations of people.

It also comes at a poignant moment considering Tony Abbott’s recent “Freedom Wars” speech and the Opposition’s commitment to repeal sections of the Racial Discrimination Act. In his Freedom Wars speech Mr Abbott talks about the paramount importance of free expression to the promotion of truth and democracy. He is right of course – but is painfully simplistic in his argument that Government regulation has no role in this process. He said:

“Freedom of speech empowers Christians, Muslims, Jews, atheists, environmentalists, climate change sceptics, conservatives, socialists, gays, gen Ys and gen Xs, baby boomers, veterans, everyone and anyone publicly to affirm whatever it is that is important to their identity.”

It does, but ONLY if they are all on an equal playing field – only if media monopolies do not exist, only if particular groups are not so historically disadvantaged that their voice is not heard. It is not “Orwellian” for the Government to regulate the extremes of our behavior when they infringe on the rights of other human beings, and, it’s naïve to think that we live in a country with a strong enough foundation of equality that it is not necessary.

Mr Abbott proposes to remove 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act, which prohibits statements that “offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate” another person or a group of people on grounds of race or ethnicity. It is possible the racist Facebook group yesterday would fall into this category. When speech is only for the purpose of belittling and degrading a group of people based on the colour of their skin; there is no public interest argument, as Mr Abbott has suggested, at stake. Courts historically construe legislation that restricts rights very narrowly so as to ensure they are not over applied and do not extend beyond their intended scope. In a country where historical injustice means that our Indigenous population consistently have poorer health, lower standards of education and lower rates of income and employment; I think Mr Abbott underestimates the power of vilification campaigns to turn an already hostile public sentiment and add fire to historical divisions.

In 1945 the swastika was banned in Germany because it represented a part of their history that resulted in the slaughtering of millions of people. Germany’s Constitution protects freedom of communication in several articles referring to the freedom to form and express opinion and the freedom to communicate these ideas to the press for publication. This freedom is qualified in article 21(2) which applies the concept of  freiheitlich-demokratische Grundordnung’which is essentially the principle that any freedom can also be misused for the purpose of abolishing that freedom. The protection of free speech is important, but if that free speech is used to oppress a group of people and deny their capacity to be heard; then it must loose its legitimacy.

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