In a landmark decision in the Federal Court of Australia, right wing columnist and broadcaster, Andrew Bolt was found guilty of contravening the Racial Discrimination Act. The case brought forward by complainant by Aboriginal activist Pat Eatock had already caused a stir in political and media circles as some had seen the case as a test of free speech in Australia.
In order to succeed in her claim, Ms Eatock needed to establish that it was reasonably likely that fair-skinned Aboriginal people (or some of them) were offended, insulted, humiliated or intimidated by the conduct and that the conduct was done by Mr Bolt and the Herald &Weekly Times, including because of the race, colour or ethnic origin of fair-skinned Aboriginal people.
Needless to say her claim succeeded. The case stems from two articles published in the Murdoch owned Herald Sun in 2009 in which he attacked the Aboriginality of a number of Aboriginal Australians. Bolt also went further by suggesting that the only reason the people named in the article identified as Aboriginal was to receive the numerous “benefits”.
The two articles were riddled with errors relating to the complainants, which only served to strengthen the complainant’s case in court.
After the decision Bolt told hoards of media outside the court, "This is a terrible day for free speech in this country… It is particularly a restriction on the freedom of all Australians to discuss multiculturalism and how people identify themselves. I argued then and I argue now that we should not insist on the differences between us but focus instead on what unites us as human beings. Thank you.”
The decision has already sparked a storm of controversy with many calling it an attack on free speech.
For me this misses the point. The position that Bolt and others as commentators hold on both the left and the right comes with a hefty responsibility.
Unlike the United States doesn’t have a bill of rights. There is no freedom of speech act , therefore the argument that is likely to ensue regarding free speech will be missing the very salient point that this case was a test of the Racial Discrimination act of which Mr Bolt and the Herald & Weekly Times engaged in conduct which contravened section 18C of the act.
The Federal Court’s ruling has a number of implications at a number of levels, the most poignant being that you can no longer spew out unfettered racial hate that’s main intent is to attack and offend people based on their race. The decision further imbeds the right of individuals to identify with their race & heritage while being free of the attacks and vitriol of others.
In short the decision is a win for racial tolerance in Australia at a time when political debate, particularly in relation to asylum seekers was quickly devolving into a primordial sludge of a debate.
So is it free speech or freedom from racial discrimination? In a mature, sophisticated society like Australia we can have both. The court ruling is a reminder that with free speech comes responibility.