Update on freedom of speech

In my last post on the free speech issue I remarked on the way that left and right were talking past each other on the question of possible reform of section 18C of the Commonwealth Racial Discrimination Act. Yesterday’s Age gives a perfect example of what I was talking about.

Rob Jackson, billed as “a workplace relations lawyer whose practice includes discrimination law,” has an op-ed piece supporting the retention of 18C. He argues that “The [human rights] commission’s role to monitor and conciliate racial vilification claims acts as a safety valve to defuse and detect the manifestation of racial intolerance,” and that “under [attorney-general George] Brandis’ reform bill … anybody could publish racially offensive content without fear of legal repercussion.”

Say again? Yes, that’s right, Jackson is reviewing the debate solely in terms of the Brandis proposal for a radically amended 18C, even though that proposal was already hitting a dead end last May and was completely abandoned in August.

I don’t know what Jackson has been doing for the last five months, but the debate has moved on. The actual reform proposal that’s on the table now is a private member’s bill from Family First senator Bob Day, which would simply remove the words “offend” and “insult” from 18C – leaving intact the prohibition on humiliation and intimidation, and doing nothing to broaden the exemptions.

You might still think that’s going too far, or not far enough. (My own view is that it’s a good start, and what the government should, if it had any sense, have proposed in the first place.) But if there’s going to be any agreement on change, it’s clearly going to be on something like that, as evidenced by support from the Institute of Public Affairs on one side and the likes of former Media Watch host Jonathan Holmes on the other.

If you want to join the debate, that’s the question you have to deal with. But Jackson makes zero mention of it.

Of course, an op-ed contributor is entitled to put whatever view he wants. But Fairfax is doing its readers – and the cause of informed debate in general – no favors by publishing a piece that so conspicuously fails to engage with the issue as it currently stands.

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