Section 18C may render all speech “inoffensive”

Section 18C may render all speech “inoffensive”, by Augusto Zimmermann, Joshua Forrester and Lorraine Finlay, argue in a new book that section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act may be unconstitutional, and in any case its use to silence debate is undemocratic and has dire consequences for freedom of speech in Australia.

Consider the recent case of Cindy Prior at the Queensland University of Technology (QUT). Ms Prior ejected three students from an Indigenous-only computer lab in 2013 because they weren’t Indigenous. The students soon posted on Facebook: “Just got kicked out of the unsigned Indigenous computer room. QUT stopping segregation with segregation,” and “I wonder where the white supremacist computer lab is.” Dr Sharon Hayes, a QUT lecturer

…stated at the time that “it seems a bit silly” to evict students from a computer lab for not being Indigenous when there are computers not being used. She apparently suggested that Ms Prior might have been in breach of QUT anti-discrimination policy by asking students who visited the Oodgeroo Unit whether they were Indigenous.

Ms Prior said she felt “sick, furious and distraught” after the comments of Dr Hayes.

According to Ms Prior, all these comments have caused her to suffer “offence, embarrassment, humiliation and psychiatric injury”. She says she didn’t feel safe and was worried about being verbally or physically assaulted. She claims she went home on that day feeling sick and stressed, as she did not feel safe and was worried about verbal or physical attack.

Ms Prior is suing the students and Dr Hayes for $247,570 under 18C. The Australian Human Rights Commission determined in August last year that there was “no reasonable prospect of the matter being settled by conciliation”, so Ms Prior filed her claim in the Federal Circuit Court.

Naturally, the very fact that a claim can be made on the basis of these facts in the first place highlights the problems with the low harm threshold established by section 18C. In many respects, “the process is the punishment”, particularly in a context where an allegation of racism inevitably carries with it special opprobrium in the community.

Who discriminated against whom, on the basis of race? What a “chilling effect” this has.