What I hadn’t known until now is that a couple of State governments have gone even further in the direction of restricting free speech under the guise of “tolerance”. As its title suggests, Victoria’s Racial and Religious Tolerance Act outlaws “vilification” based on a person’s religious beliefs or practices as well as their race, while section 19 of Tasmania’s Anti-Discrimination Act throws caution (not to mention freedom of speech) to the winds and outlaws vilification based on race, disability, sexual orientation or religious beliefs, affiliations or activities.
The absurd outcome of this sort of dangerous politically-correct nonsense is illustrated by the following two current media stories (the photo of “Ms” Watts is from News Interactive story):
Olivia Watts, a male police officer and practising witch, will test Victoria’s unique religious tolerance legislation.
Free legal work, tribunal fees and a solicitor and barrister were believed to have been given to Ms Watts by Victoria Legal Aid.
Several top barristers were angered by the use of scarce Legal Aid funds, but Attorney-General Rob Hulls gave his OK to a similar case.
“We govern for all Victorians – and that includes witches, magicians and sorcerers,” Mr Hulls wrote to the Pagan Awareness Network, which is also suing the mayor of Casey, Rob Wilson.
Ms Watts said she became “an emotional wreck” after Mr Wilson outed her as a witch in a press release and on community radio. She was taking Mr Wilson to the anti-discrimination list of the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal in August.
In her witness statement, Ms Watts stated she had practised her craft since she was six years old.
“I have followed my faith since childhood, and this is the first time that I have been attacked because of my faith,” she wrote.
She said her sleep and home life were “disturbed badly” as a result of the comments, and that she had to close her naturopathy clinic because she was too distraught to see clients.
In June last year, Cr Wilson blamed a series of council embarrassments on diabolical intervention.
He said there was a “satanic cult out to take over Casey”, and that the council’s toils and troubles had “all the hallmarks of being linked to the occult”.
The Tasmanian Gay And Lesbian Rights Lobby are seeking legal advice on whether George Pell’s column condemning gay parents violates the state’s vilification laws.
“We think there is a prima facie case that the article incites hatred on the grounds of sexual orientation which is against the law in Tasmania,” TGLRL spokesperson Rodney Croome told Sydney Star Observer.
“There’s no exemption in Tasmania’s anti-discrimination law when it comes to churches “¦ Cardinal Pell cannot hide behind his red robes,” Croome said. The maximum fine for breach of the law is $20,000.
Pell wrote this week in The Australian that research showed traditional marriage provided “a significantly lower danger of child abuse and murder” and “significantly lower risks of infant mortality, substance abuse, depression and suicide”.
Pell’s opinion is self-evidently stupid in several respects, but Croome’s position is dangerously fascistic. Silly and intolerant attitudes don’t need to be suppressed; they need to be exposed and discredited by rational argument. June Factor from the Victorian Civil Liberties Council encapsulated my position on The Law Report:
June Factor: If you want a free society, you have to be able to tolerate the differences of view. Now undoubtedly sometimes what people say, whether it be true or false, will hurt the feelings, will offend others. I don’t think that’s an adequate reason for preventing people from saying it, and I think there was an American judge of the American Supreme Court who once said that the best antiseptic is sunlight, and I think that’s absolutely right in the area of argument as well. I want to be able to challenge these views, I don’t want them suppressed, sent underground, become surreptitious, allow the purveyors of these views to, as we were saying before, become martyrs, and attract a whole lot of people to their cause because of their sense of being intimidated and oppressed. That’s not I think the way a free society works, either if you like in terms of its philosophy, nor indeed in terms of good practice.
Damien Carrick: What do you see as the risks of removing this kind of material from the public debate?
June Factor: The truth is, it won’t be removed from the public debate. It will still be there, it will now unfortunately have this halo around it, or rather the person who who had heard of Frederick Toben until this broke out? I mean he was an unknown person. Now anybody, all sorts of people will start to look him up on the web and find out about him and correspond with him. So I don’t think it will be removed, and the point I was making earlier, it’s not even practical.
Damien Carrick: As a Jewish person who comes from a family which was destroyed during the holocaust, you must understand though the hurt and pain that this kind of information can do to people who come across it.
June Factor: Of course. There’s no question of that. But it seems to me that one of the lessons from history is that it is tremendously important for people to try to ensure that the society in which they live is open to dissent, including views which they find deeply offensive or plain stupid and ridiculous. I also abhor passivity, I think it’s terribly dangerous for people to turn their heads away and say ‘It’s nothing to do with me’. I think it has to do with us all, and people like Toben need to be challenged and his nonsensical, ahistorical views have to be responded to and answered, but it’s pointless trying to shut him up.
Update – Just for the sake of completeness, I did a quick bibliographic search for journal articles about Australian anti-vilification laws. I came up with a frankly bizarre article titled “Jurisprudential Foundations for Anti-Vilification Laws: The Relevance of Speech Act and Foucauldian Theory” by Aleardo Zanghellini in last year’s Melbourne University Law Review. Apart from being packed with predictable po-mo wankery, it probably shouldn’t have surprised me that the author also managed to deploy post-modernist “analysis” so as to conclude that, while it might be perfectly acceptable for the law to prohibit vilification of gays, Aborigines, muslims and other minorities, it would be a serious infringement of freedom of speech rights for such laws to be available where the target of vilification is a white middle class male like me!!:
Homophobia and racism against minorities remain serious social ills. If anti-vilification legislation is appropriately tailored to the goal of tackling these ills, contending that such legislation is constitutional is not outright unreasonable. Bigoted or hostile speech against such groups as heterosexuals or Anglo-Australians may cause offence. But this offence is a much lesser evil than the subordination, violence and silencing that individuals belonging to stigmatised minorities may experience. The case for regarding such offence as a sufficient reason for limiting freedom of expression has yet to be made.
Shakespeare was wrong when he said: “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers“. He should have put legal academics first, and other lawyers second.