While much of the debate about section 18c of the Racial Discrimination Act has focused on Andrew Bolt and Bill Leak, in a world where young people air their thoughts and feelings on a range of social media platforms, 18c poses an enormous threat to young Australians. Instances like the now infamous QUT case demonstrate that it is all too easy for frivolous claims to be brought forward, resulting in huge reputational damage and enormous legal costs even to be found innocent.
The recent abuses of section 18c have opened the door to even more vexatious claims to be made by so-called “victims” whose ultimate goal is simply to extort hush money from the accused. This is a particular threat to young Australians who could find themselves hauled before the courts for a Facebook post, a Tweet, a Snapchat, or even an Instagram post – just because someone found it, in their opinion, to be offensive or insulting.
When the Federal Circuit Court dismissed the QUT case, the ideological cheer squad for section 18c claimed this as a vindication that the law was functioning adequately – a dishonest claim which masks the true cost of being accused of racial discrimination under 18c: enormous legal bills and life-long reputational harm, all to be found innocent.
At present, 18c claims are investigated in secret by the deeply partisan and incompetent Australian Human Rights Commission, and by the time people find out that they are the subject of an 18c claim, significant reputational damage has already been caused. In one instance, the Commission sat on a complaint for two years before the defendants in the case were notified. The potential life-long career and reputational damage is very real – one minor Facebook post, Tweet, or Snapchat could mean having every future employer who searches on Google coming across such complaints from decades past. Indeed, one of the students at the centre of the QUT case, Calum Thwaites, was forced to abandon his plans to become a school teacher, fearing that parents and colleagues may search his name and find out that he was accused, albeit frivolously, of racism.
The financial cost itself is also absurdly high. Defending oneself against such a claim costs tens of thousands of dollars, far beyond the capacity of most young Australians to pay. Though self-representation is an option, faced with the considerable financial might of the Human Rights Commission, one is forced to acquire expensive legal assistance. So it’s no wonder that some young Australians involved in the QUT case chose to settle with the complainant for $5000 rather than risk ten times that amount defending themselves.
If the financial and reputational threats aren’t enough, this whole regime is subject to the Orwellian processes of the Human Rights Commission. The Commission’s refusal to offer an apology to the students in the QUT case adds insult to injury and shows a callous disregard for the extent to which 18c proceedings leave enduring scars on the lives of the accused. The Commission’s methods have been exposed for what they are: far from having anything to do with stopping racism, they amount to nothing more than an egregious assault on freedom of speech.
In a democracy, it is healthy to allow all people to air their views. We are told consistently throughout our civic education that young people participating in political and social debate is critical to the survival of the Australian democracy. A truly free society should encourage its youngest citizens to engage in the battle of ideas, to express their opinions and debate them maturely with their peers. It shouldn’t be a surprise that from time to time, young people will say things that will shock, challenge the status quo, or instigate fiery debate. These are the signs of a healthy society that embraces different opinions. To now suggest to young people that they must adhere to a politically correct doctrine, signed off by the Human Rights Commission and with all the hallmarks of 1984, is anathema to our society.
I for one am confident that Australians exercising common sense will always shoot down extreme racist opinions, as we have done for 200 years; history has proven time and again that free speech is the most powerful antidote for genuine hate speech. Australians don’t need Big Brother to tell them what can and cannot be said, nor should the free speech that we cherish be suppressed on the basis of feeling offended or insulted.
So long as section 18c remains on the books, and so long as the Human Rights Commission is allowed to police what we say through unfair and opaque processes, young Australians will continue to face the persistent financial and reputational damage exposed by the QUT case. To save free speech in Australia and prevent the very significant threat against young people, the Parliament must get serious about reforming the Human Rights Commission and seriously amend or abolish section 18c.
Aiden Depiazzi is federal Young Liberal president. He tweets at @AidenDepiazzi.
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