Flat White

What do we want? Less free speech!

24 August 2016

3:33 PM

24 August 2016

3:33 PM

For years comedians across America have been lamenting the suffocating political correctness sweeping their country. This growing aversion “offensive” views, and the public outrage it can ignite, has led even family friendly comedians to avoid college campuses — the hotbeds of this new conformity.

Jerry Seinfeld highlighted the problem in a June 2015 interview, stating “I don’t play colleges, but I hear a lot of people tell me, ‘Don’t go near colleges. They’re so PC.’”

Seinfeld continues, “They just want to use these words: ‘That’s racist;’ ‘That’s sexist;’ ‘That’s prejudice.’ They don’t know what the hell they’re talking about.”

In Australia, however, it seems comedians are a part of the problem. At least that’s the case with Corrine Grant.

Speaking on Monday night’s Q&A, the comedian turned graduate lawyer defended the legal action a former QUT academic has brought against a group of students under section 18C of the Racial Discriminating Act.

The “crime” these students committed was voicing their disagreement with the existence of indigenous only IT labs, with innocuous Facebook posts like “Just got kicked out of the unsigned indigenous computer room. QUT (is) stopping segregation with segregation.”

Seemingly oblivious to the free speech implications, Grant claimed that dragging university students through the courts for expressing an opinion was the appropriate way to challenge offensive views.

“The legal system exists for a reason and part of that reason is for these debates to be able to be had in an open court with an impartial judicial officer weighing up the pros and cons of it. That’s what our legal system is for.”

In effect, Grant is claiming that the courts exist to determine the legitimacy of people’s opinions.

Sadly, because of section 18C (and the supposed exemptions in section 18D) this is effectively the case. But it goes against centuries of tradition in western societies (Grant compared 18C to defamation law, but unlike 18C, defamation law deals with matters of fact, not opinion).

Such an Orwellian system would be bad enough in a perfectly efficient legal system. In Australia’s far from perfect system, it can damage careers, damage reputations, and cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, all before the case gets to court.

And then there is the profound chilling effect such cases can have on freedom of speech. College campuses are already becoming institutions of conformity, where dissenting opinions are discouraged. Add the threat of legal action and open inquiry won’t exist at all.

To many Australians, these problems with section 18C are obvious. But not to Corrine Grant who, armed with the sorry excuse for an education commonly known as a law degree, thinks they should be routine.

Even if the QUT case is eventually thrown out, the fact that it was brought forward in the first place, and has dragged on for so long — the events in question occurred in May 2013 — is unacceptable.

Students should not be dragged through lengthy legal battles for expressing any opinion, let alone for writing innocuous Facebook posts criticizing affirmative action computer labs.

If we can’t agree on this, then 18C is the least of our problems.

Patrick Hannaford is an Australian writer currently based in Washington D.C.

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