The current legal action, claiming a breach of the Racial Discrimination Act, taken by nine Indigenous Australians against the Sun Herald columnist, Andrew Bolt, has stirred quite a ripple in media circles. Journalists and commentators are turning the case into a debate about freedom of speech. Many are suggesting that legal action using defamation laws would have been more appropriate. Here are jst a few of the articles on the topic….

It is important, first of all, to look at the legal action which has actually been taken.

The nine indigenous people taking actiion claim that in two Herald Sun articles and two blog posts published in 2009, Bolt breached section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act, 1975, by expressing views about their skin colour and their identification as indigenous Australians. They also claim he did so knowing those views were ”reasonably likely to offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate” them.

The group are demanding an apology from Bolt. The court is considering whether under the Act comments likes Bolt’s are breaking the law.

One of the major criticisms of the case has been in relation to the right to freedom of expression. Some commentators, like Crikey’s Margaret Simons, have argued that “we should worry if we are going to start prohibiting people from publishing views that, while we strongly disagree with them, are common in the wider society”. In particular, it’s the decision to take legal action under the Racial Discrimination Act rather than using defamation laws which appears to be the “freedom of speech” camp’s argument.

Crikey was joined by  Mediawatch’s Jonathon Holmes on the issue. Holmes argued “to declare something unlawful just because it causes offence – on the grounds of race or anything else – is an unjustified curtailment of our freedom of speech”. Both media commentators argued that defamation laws are adequate to deal with these kinds of situations because while they allow publication (freedom of speech) they also provide for the rights of people to sue for damages.

But not everyone agrees with the freedom of speech arguments. Mark Fletcher (New Matilda) has one theory on why there has been a media outcry defending Bolt – while distancing themselves from his comments. Fletcher says that “restricting the media’s ability to publish inflammatory and controversial content …. strikes at the heart of their business model.”

Richard Ackland adds to the argument saying that “Aboriginality is a topic worthy of decent analysis and commentary but in Bolt’s hands it turned into a crude sneer, replete with errors”.  He argues that our right to freedom of speech is not tied to Bolt’s right because of the inaccuracy of his attack.



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