Interview with Peter J Black: Racial vilifaction vs freedom of speech

A recent controversy over a blatantly racist page on Facebook – and Facebook’s delay in taking the page down – raised the issue of how best to address cases of blatant racial vilification. Similar issues were raised with the trial of Andrew Bolt for columns he wrote which were found to breach the Racial Discrimination Act.

I recently spoke about these issues with law lecturer Peter J Black, who I speak with each week during my show on community radio 4ZzZ FM and who has a special interest in laws relating to the media and the internet.

You can listen to that interview by clicking on this link.

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  1. I think we need to be very careful what we complain about, because we could be playing straight into the hands of people who wish to take away Freedom of Speech.

    As we know, the government tries to stop workers from going on strike for improvements in wages and working conditions, which is quite undemocratic. Some restrictions were placed on Freedom of Assembly here in Queensland under Joh Bjelke-Peterson, mostly designed to silence unions and various protest groups.

    I believe Australians are becoming far more racist and religionist, due to the Slave Labor Trade being run by both Labor and Coalition. For example, there are young Aussie men who wish to work in the mines for an Aussie rate of pay, but the government keeps allowing mining companies to bring in foreign workers who are forced to accept poorer wages and working conditions.

    I recently saw an aboriginal professor speaking on national television. She seemed to think that everyone should be financially assisted based on need, not on race, as this would be an excellent equaliser.

  2. I tended to agree with Andrew’s expert, hence to a degree with Lorikeet.
    It is easy enough to inadvertantly offend someone cracking just about any sort of joke, as you see on TV comedy shows, exponentially worse when it is personalised into a smear intended to disadvantage a person or group without regard to the facts, or worse still tends toward incitement and the breakdown of public order, as we saw with Alan Jones, just prior to the Cronulla riots.
    Bolt played on a subconscious presumption in many peoples minds that indigenes are somehow untrustworthy or inferior: even Aboriginal academics are some how sub-grade, so what hope the rest.
    We have had so many debates about the context of race relations in this country, the huge psychological and physical disadvantages that have many indigenes permanently”kicking against the wind”.
    With Bolt you can always ask is there a hidden agenda, eg he is only saying what he says a) because it is good for ratings b) because he is paid well to push an anti egalitarian agenda on behalf of certain interests that will usually betray a certain bias, hence the “good faith “issue” as some one pretends to be an unbiased observer but actually pushes a line.
    Lorikeet’s points would broadly be mine, that there are many real world issues about that people wish to discuss; that we need as few obstacles to information and conversation as possible.
    I’d go further than Lorikeet in just criticising Bjelke Petersen, I think dumbing down and attempts at political censorship are right across politics these days.
    Let alone the sly secrecy of Commercial in Confidence, FOI and secrecy as to Free Trade Agreements that affect peoples lives, yet specifically deny information to a large section of the community in favour of a privileged few who probably don’t even live in the country, usually big businesses wanting to access Australia’s resources, but seeking to avoid or change laws that protect local environment, health and welfare, as with gas fracking.

  3. I think it should be against the law to offend a group of people based on race. The facebook page in question was not funny and if you looked it up it was clear that many people found it highly offensive. I don’t think that being conscientious of how your comments may affect individuals or groups of people should be limiting of free speech, but is important in ensuring that members of society do not feel alienated or intimidated. Thus, the monitoring of racist depictions and commentaries in public will in fact encourage free speech by making all members of society feel respected and equal.

  4. i have to agree it should be against the law to racially offend a group or person .

    and as usual Paul Walter has explained is view well

    and i totally understand the frustrations of some groups and individuals.

    what i don’t understand is why there seems to be only one group and certain individuals that it would appear can be racists

    its ok for some to call me racist names even spit at me but the second i comment i am a racist .
    the question i would like to ask is why .

    is there or has there ever been a group or a person from a minority group who racially abused or made a derogatory comment about another person (lets say from the only group that can be racist it would seem ) been prosecuted on the grounds of racism .(in Australia).

    looking forward to an honest answer.

  5. According to there have been many cases of complaints about racial hatred but they don’t break them down into the “race” of the complaining party. They mention one case I remember well , that of a man named Toben, whose continual publishing on the Internet of Holocaust denial “literature” was eventually brought to an end. He, of course, was publishing offensive material against Jews.

    I notice that the complaints up to 2000 (when the report was made) were mostly about media, neighbourhood disputes, employment, personal conflict and public debate. Personally, I agree with this stateent on the HREOC website : All people in Australia – no matter what their national, cultural or religious background – have a right to feel safe, respected and part of the community in which they live.

    This explains the law and how it works.

  6. thanks togret
    i had a look at the discrimination guide the thing that stands out most for me is the fact that it would still seem to be only one group that can be racists.

    All people in Australia – no matter what their national, cultural or religious background – have a right to feel safe, respected and part of the community in which they live.

    this is a brilliant statement that i totally agree with especially the part

    All people in Australia.

    the was one case someone tried to bring to court in western Australia in Kalgoorlie there was a very good case to answer but the govt and the aboriginal legal dept stopped it because if they lost and they would have lost .the fact that the playing field in regards to court cases about racial comments would have been made a little more even .
    i think that the risk was too great
    thats the only case involving two Australians i know of .

  7. red crab – what evidence do you have that any particular group of people is advantaged or disadvantaged in complainign about racial vilification? “one group in Australia can be reacists” .. what do you mean? examples? which group?

  8. thanks togret
    to answer that question of which i am Shaw you already know the answer
    would make me out to be something im not .

    i don’t have the ability of someone like Paul Walter to put it into words without tripping myself up.

    you on the other hand i suspect know exactly what i am trying to get across.

  9. red crab – you make no sense, If I understand the above – you refuse to answer honestly becuase if you say what you really think people will look on you unfavourably. Fine. I, at least, have the courage of my convictions.

    I have no idea why you just hint around without saying what you really think, but I’m not interested in silly games.

  10. My observation in my travels around the world is that ‘racism’ is wide-spread and certainly not confined to predominantly ‘white’ (Causasian) countries. It suspect that Red Crab is saying that ‘non-whites’ of various ethnic or religious origins are pretty free with their criticism of ‘white’ Australians – with no suggestion that their comments are ‘racist’ – but as soon as a ‘white’ Australian criticises any action by a ‘non-white’ Australian, the loud cry of “Racism!!” goes out! For example, a person can freely criticise domestic and child abuse per se, but if you are talking about Aboriginal domestic and child abuse, it is called ‘racism’.

    I find it quite interesting that here in our ‘white’ society we tend to think we are ‘the norm’ and only other people belong to different ‘races’. But when I spent some time with a ‘non-white’ group, I was surprised to hear constant unflattering criticism of “Caucasians”, with all the ridiculous generalisations that ‘white’ society often applies to ‘non-white’ groups. Yes, Caucasians are a race too. And in many countries are subject to very adverse ‘racist’ policies and practices.

    In fact, I believe Australia is one of the world’s more tolerant countries. Let’s get over this tendency to ‘beat ourselves up’ and exaggerate and misinterpret comments by our fellow citizens. Let’s not instantly call the ‘race’ card. Let’s just focus on the topic itself, be it domestic and child abuse, extremist religious riots, excessive boat arrivals etc..

  11. thanks nannak.
    just about says it all .

    as for not explaining myself better i try to be very careful what i say here this is an open forum is it not.

  12. It amazes me that when it comes to racial issues we have a tendency to compare our standards with third world countries. However when it comes to education and health we are adamant in demanding that we compare ourselves with developed countries.
    Freedom of speech is a great thing and it must be respected, appreciated and guarded. BUT it does not give us the right to abuse, insult and degrade any particular groups of people. Freedom of speech comes with responsibility. Sensationalists, shock jocks and unenlightened red necks have often used freedom of speech to vent out their puerile views. Shame!

  13. Jolly

    Who is talking about comparing our standards with third world countries? My reference to other countries where Caucasians are often derided, and are sometimes discriminated against, certainly wasn’t a reference to any third world country, I assure you!!

    And are you suggesting that “Sensationalists, shock jocks and unenlightened red necks” are the only ones around with “puerile views”? I can think of a lot of others with puerile views, including some rabid Greens supporters and many uni students – just for starters! And as for abuse and insults – much of that is ‘in the eye of the beholder’. For example, many of those who aren’t entirely convinced about the theory of anthropogenic climate change feel very abused when others happily call them “climate change deniers” – a term that links to “Holocaust denier”.

    ‘Freedom of speech’ is just that – freedom to say what you want as long as you aren’t inciting violence, vilifying others or indulging in other illegal activities. By the same token, other people are free to criticise what you are saying. It cuts both ways.

    And yes, freedom of speech and freedom of the press is very precious and worth fighting for. It is the main protector of our democracy.

  14. Nannak – what would you prefer to be called? “Climate change sceptic” is already taken by the scientists whose use of the scientific method makes them sceptical always – it’s part of their job to try to disprove their own or their colleagues’ own hypotheses. Would you like to be called a “climate change doubter” ? I think you’ll have to offer another word if “denier” is offensive, though I think the flatstatements from people who sipmly do not believe in human-made climate change, like Tony Abbott, who called it crap, make it difficult to think of another word. You seem to be in a different camp from Mr Abbott … “wonderers”? “agnostics?”

    Would you like to give examples of countries where Caucasians, whatever that may mean, are derided and discriminated against? I take it you don’t mean people who are from the Caucasus region in Europe?

  15. TOGRET

    Yes, ‘climate change sceptic’ is a better term – and it fits entirely with my view that, contrary to the claims of many, the science is definitely not ‘settled’. And, as you say, science is never ‘settled’ – it is only as good as the latest data and interpretations. I do believe climate change is ongoing, and always has been. I don’t think many would disagree with that. But, as I understand it, the argument is about the SPEED of change recently. And in that regard, one can read all sorts of reports from various sources, all no doubt interpreting the data to bolster their own views. And there is some dispute about what we are told – it is rarely raw data – it is usually ‘massaged’ to take into account various parameters – and hence how reliable is that information? I simply don’t know, and as such, I remain agnostic on the topic of anthropogenic climate change.

    Nevertheless, I agree that we need to do whatever we can, as quickly as is economically possible, to curb our reliance on fossil fuels (which are indeed finite) and to increase our use of renewable energy such as solar. I also support greater use of MODERN nuclear power plants, both big and small.

    With regard to solar, I recently forked out around $12K to install a 5kW solar electricity grid. We are also very careful with our use of other resources, including water – we rely entirely on our own water tanks as we do not have access to reticulated water – and we have our own septic system for the same reason. So, I am prepared to put my money where my mouth isn’t!

    My greatest disappointment is the lack of any worldwide focus on the widespread destruction of forests and rainforests – thus reducing significantly the primary remover of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. But I guess the real underlying problem for Earth is the relentless population increase! China is the only country I know of that has attempted to tackle this issue.

    Re my use of the word ‘Caucasian’: the old, basic division of the world’s races was Caucasian, Asian and Negroid. This referred primarily to perceived physical characteristics. Of course, there is no biological basis for this as we all belong to Homo Sapiens. But in general, the word is used loosely to denote people who are white in skin colour – whatever ‘white’ may mean these days. I seem to recall hearing over time reports from various countries where legislation has been enacted to prevent some groups from buying land, standing for election, receiving education and a range of other things. Malaysia is a country that introduced laws to disadvantage Asians, for example. I understand that in some African countries, including South Africa, ‘whites’ are now being discriminated against (payback?). My very enlightening experience was when we were good friends with a well-educated Australian Chinese couple. I got used to their references to ‘Caucasians’, including the fact that a brother had been disowned by the family because he married a ‘Caucasian’. I also know that when we visited China, there were many restaurants that refused entry to ‘Caucasians’. Maybe not terribly significant in the scheme of things, given the centuries-long horrific discrimination by Caucasians against those of a different skin colour, but my original point was that ‘racism’ is not entirely confined to ‘white’ people discriminating against ‘non-white’ people. But I certainly concede that racism by ‘whites’ against ‘non-whites’ is the usual scenario.

    However, I do object when some ‘non-white’ person is criticised for very legitimate reasons, and the person being criticised (or his/her supporters) immediately plays the ‘racism’ card!! If the person is criticised BECAUSE they are of a certain race, then that is ‘racism’! If the person is criticised because of some other legitimate reason, then that is just criticism! People who play the ‘racism’ card without justification, do the entire struggle against racial discrimination a great disservice!

  16. Nannak – I agree with most of what you say. I think that the problems we have in Australia, possibly more so in Sth Africa etc, are tht we bear the legacy of past racist policies. FOr Example, unti lthe late 1960s, any aboriginal child could be excluded from a state school if any “white” parent objected to their presence. The devestating results of that, plus the solen children policies, plus posckets of individual racism have made some aboriginal people hide thir aboriginal heritage, even though they knew of it, and practised the culture as best they could, in private. SOme were excluded from living in towns, and then people (like me in the past) denied there even were aboriginal people living in our home town.

    Now, when they don’t encounter as much nastiness and discrimination, people whose culture is derived from aboriginal heritage, never mind the colour/s of their skins, are judged by people like Andrew Bolt for claiming what he doesn’t think they are entitled to. I live in an area where a dress shop owner wanted to emply a trainee, and despite the excellence of an aboriginal girl, she could ot do it, because she knew the better off i the town bould boycott the shop, after a previous experience. There still Is endemic racism, and maybe people who bring it up are in some cases over-sensitive becuase of past experiences – when we get racist-based policies like the NT interention, who could serously say tht (well-intentioned or not) there still is racism in Austalia today?

    Who are we to say “Oh, they shoudl be over all that! They should not be so sensitive?” We are histories winners. We gave ourselves the right to judge the rightness of others’ cause. Of course there are non-wellintentioned people who rort the system and subscribe to stereotypes. They are human aren’t they? I know of ex-service personnel who rort the system to get benefits they have a sense of entitlement to. So far, of the dozen or so, all are “Caucasian” ….

  17. TOGRET

    Yes, bad and fraudulent behaviour knows no racial barriers. Human beings are certainly not perfect creatures, and we are all just human beings, regardless of skin colour.

    There is no doubt whatsoever that Aborigines were/have been/continue to be discriminated in an horrific manner in this country. I grew up in a country town in the 50s and 60s. There was an Aboriginal settlement outside of town – next to the town’s rubbish dump! That says a lot. I was very friendly with an Aboriginal girl from that settlement because we always traveled to high school sports carnivals together (we were both high jumpers). I really wasn’t fully aware then of the full extent of discrimination, other than wonder why my friend, who went to school with me, lived out at the settlement when I thought she should live in town.

    It was a shock to me when I came to Qld in 1990 – I was employed as an EEO officer and had an Aboriginal liaison officer to assist me. From my co-worker I learned all about the horrific practices in Qld – the power of the Protector of Aborigines (what a joke of a name!) to restrict all activities/movements etc of all Aborigines in the State. That lasted until 1986! I also heard about the many massacres and other atrocities. Many of my fellow employees were part of the ‘stolen generation’ – I was told first-hand about that as well, and could see the long-term psychological torment caused by this practice. I think Qld has one of the most shameful histories of all the States (maybe challenged by Tasmania) when it comes to overt racial discrimination.

    So, yes, like South Africa, we have a lot of shameful history!

    Despite my knowledge of all of that, I must say I was very annoyed when a local Aboriginal activist lobbied Arnotts to change the name of its ‘Creole’ biscuits (the word ‘Creole’ relates to mixed languages, and has no black/Aboriginal connotations); another local activist lobbied to have the name of ‘Coon’ cheese changed because he claimed it was ‘racist’; and then another activist lobbied to change the name of a grandstand at a sports field named in the 1920s in honour of a very blonde, very fair-skinned local footballer whose nickname was ‘Nigger’ (typical Australian humour at the time). The biscuits disappeared off the shelf; the grandstand was demolished after 10 years of constant lobbying; but we can still buy ‘Coon’ cheese! I just think cases like that do little to enhance the cause of Aboriginals.

  18. Hi Nannak … I agree about the cheese, agree about the biscuits, but I must say, having heard first hand about the Toowoomba grandstand’s name and the hurt it caused aboriginal people, I have to ownder whether the history of the place would be entirely lost if hte stand was knwon by the name hte man was christened with? I htink a gesture such as that towards reconciliation might be worth making … but, having been to Toowoomba many times, I know it is a very … conservative place.

    If the many had been known by a name meaning female body parts, would we be happy to have that blasted over hte loudspeaker every time there was a goal there, or the play moved toward that end of hte groud? Becuase that was what was happening – Aboriginal spectators heard every once in a wile during the match ” .. and now, player X is running toward the N*** grandstand end of the oval …” – if you had had that word hurled at you in abuse, would you want it repeated over and over when you were out for a family day at the footy? And the effect on the players must have been worse .. . Sorry, I don’t have much sympathy for normalising the use of that word.

  19. Hi TOGRET

    I guess you have a point there – an announcement that “player X is running towards the N***** grandstand end of the oval” does sound really bad. Although, to my knowledge, the word ‘n*****’ has never been used in Australia like it was in the US. We had our own collection of equally offensive words that were commonly used in referring to Aborigines. And yes, Toowoomba is a very conservative town, and the activist involved was definitely not popular there, even amongst other Aboriginals, for several reasons not connected with this issue.

    Anyhow, the grandstand has now been demolished, and any future reference to that footballer will be to his given name, not his nickname. So you can relax!

    I believe Coon cheese, an Australian cheese, was named after Edward William Coon who developed the ‘cooning process’ of cheese making. The process was patented in 1926, and Coon cheese went into production in 1935. But after his success with the grandstand, the same activist announced he was going to continue his crusade against Coon cheese. But I haven’t heard anything about it for some time now.

  20. Hi Nannak, look, I agree that a person with a ligitiamte complaint can also just become a person with a chip on each shoulder — sometimes because of what really have been awful experiences in thier past. I wish I could agree with you that the N… word wasn’t/isn’t in common use in Australia, but I’m 61, and I’ve lived in most states except Tas, and I can assure you from personal experience it is in use to this day. “Coon” not so much, though as a matter of fact I heard it this lunchtime – in reference to the USA Presidential elections. I suppose you can guess the rest. “Sticks and stones etc ” never rang true for me … people employ words to wound others, and they work to attack someone’s self-esteem, to humiliate them and mark them off as an outsider. In an ideal world one would be able ot just laugh, but it can be very difficult to have tha sort of thing happen day after day. Yes, it tells us about the speaker, not the victim, but it can nevertheless be destructive – I’m sure you know that. Because of my colouring and line of work I’m sometimes mistaken for Chinese, Indonesian, Aboriginal, you name it, and I would not mind if those names were not hurled as an insult. In fact I’m a “bitzer” from mostly Anglo-Celtic background, with 1/16 of my heritage from the Middle East, which seems to have given a particular shape to my eyes and skin. Lucky me, but I seem to be a threat to some people, who assume all sorts of things from my appearance. I’ve been kept out of what used to be called “the ladies’ lounge’ in pubs, told not to touch food on display … mostly in summer when I go quite brown easily. My Australia is probably not yours, not exactly.

  21. Hi TOGRET

    I am 66 and have only lived in NSW and Qld. I have heard many very offensive terms used to refer to Aboriginals and even people who have a darker skin, including Italian and Greek migrants But I can’t recall ever hearing the word “n*****’ – but I guess that says more about my experience, than the actual practice. Either way, it is a nasty word, and I accept that removing all reference to that footballer’s nickname is a very sensible move.

    I guess I just hate to see so much of history rewritten, and place names changed etc, to accommodate today’s politically correct world. Even though I am an atheist, I don’t like moves by schools etc to ban Christmas celebrations etc etc. I think a better move would be to ADD other religions’ celebrations to broaden our experience of the world and help our children better understand other parts of the world, and our own non-Christian Australians.

    And yes, I am the typical blue-eyed, blonde (now grey!) Australian so my experience has no doubt been very different to yours. And I guess it is hard to imagine yourself in another person’s skin. I accept that your Australia is not exactly my Australia. But I thank you for this very enlightening conversation we’ve been having. One is never too old to learn!

  22. Nannak:

    The Australian birth rate has been around or below Zero Population Growth for around 50 years, ever since the introduction of the contraceptive pill in 1961.

    You are certainly correct in thinking that scientists’ ideas constantly change, since they seldom manage to get anything right without lots of stuff ups occurring. If the Australian government actually believed their own Climate Change dogma, they wouldn’t still be shipping various commodities and products back and forth unnecessarily.

    I am completely against the use of Nuclear Power, as the widespread environmental damage and human suffering it is capable of causing simply isn’t worth the risk. I think solar panels are much too expensive and beyond the financial reach of a large section of the community.

    I agree that people should live and let live where race and religion are concerned, try not to be wasteful, and try to restore a cohesive supportive community.

  23. Nannak
    The Australia of yester years is certainly not the Australia of to-day or the future, hopefully. My Australia is certainly a far enlightened and more egalitarian than that of our grand parents. My grand parents’ obsession with ‘mother land’ (Britain), royalties and their abhorrence for any one outside the Anglo Celtic stock is typical of that generation. The early settlers shunned the Catholic Irish, then the Greeks & Italians, particularly if they had tan complexion. Much later the abuse inflected on the Vietnamese is well documented. That we treated our Aboriginal people with contempt is a known fact.
    At least now we have a younger and more educated Aussies of all racial background who are keen not to perpetuate the ignorance and ill-will of some of the older generations towards new migrants /refugees. Racial abuse and taunts have no place in Australia. Negative discrimination on racial grounds is unAustralian and archaic. We in Australia have enough room for the other. Freedom of speech is an excuse to display racial bigotry. Sick!!

  24. I wonder how you feel about your last paragraph Jolly, in the wake of the disgusting scenes on the Melbourne bus recently. I find it disheartening to think that people would be so pathetic as to join in with some drunken idiot’s abuse of a young women whose crome was apparently singing in alanguage he didn’t understand … whatever his mohter tongue was, it wasn’t English either. And a busload of people stood by and did nothign – what have we come to?

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