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The Bolt saga detracts from RDA reform

By Dilan Thampapillai - posted Thursday, 20 March 2014

If I understand this correctly, Andrew Bolt was offended by what Marcia Langton said about him on Q & A. Andrew Bolt was so offended that he did not go to work on the Tuesday after the show. Bolt is a journalist and presumably he can work from home, but let's not quibble on the details. His feelings were hurt. He demanded an apology. Marcia Langton apologised. So did the ABC.

The melodrama got slightly more complicated when Bolt suggested he was unhappy with the ABC's apology and Langton helpfully offered a 19-page 'clarification' of her apology.

The plaintiffs in Eatock v Bolt were also after an apology. It is a shame that in the absence of a gracious apology that they had to sue to get court-ordered corrective notice.


Still, it's great to see 'free speech' in action.

As amusing as the Bolt-Langton saga has been, it really is a sideshow that distracts from the real issues around free speech.

There are two key issues that are currently in play. The first is whether it is worthwhile for our society to remove any legal restrictions on racist hate speech. The second concerns the nature of any amendments to the Part IIA scheme in the Racial Discrimination Act.

If section 18C is repealed then the victims of racist hate speech will be without legal redress.

It is important to understand the true purpose of the RDA scheme. Section 18C does not stop racism, any more than criminal laws stop crime, but it does provide a remedy in certain situations. The laws have proved useful in instances of Holocaust denial speech and direct racist verbal assaults.

At present the existence of the laws protects the victims of racist abuse. Removing the laws will tacitly shift the protection towards those who engage in racist hate speech.


Yet, if we consider the two parties most likely to be affected by any repeal of the current laws, namely, racists and their victims, it is easy to see who is more deserving of legal protection.

In all the successful cases under the RDA the victims have been law-abiding citizens who have been minding their own business. The perpetrators have in some form or another subjected them to unwarranted racist hate speech.

The RDA remains relevant because there continues to be regular reports of serious racial abuse. The somewhat recent attack by two young women on an elderly gentleman on a Queensland bus is just one such case.

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About the Author

Dilan Thampapillai is a lecturer with the College of Law at the Australian National University. These are his personal views.

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