THE AUSTRALIAN: Room for offensive views 5Sep13 September 5, 2013

Michael Sexton     -      The Australian      -    3 September 2013

UNIVERSITIES have traditionally been thought of as bastions of free speech but three cases indicate that this is a rather fragile plant in the present climate of political discussion in Australia.

The most recent case concerns a complaint lodged with the Australian Human Rights Commission against two academics at the University of Sydney’s Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies.

The complaint has been lodged by a group of Israeli lawyers and is based on the academics’ support for the so-called boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign. BDS was established in July 2005 by a number of Palestinian organisations and targets the products of Israeli business enterprises and those of international corporations that are said to profit from the violation of Palestinian rights. It is also aimed at Israeli sporting, cultural and academic institutions.

In Australia there have been a number of BDS demonstrations at Max Brenner chocolate cafes on the ground that it is a franchise of the Israeli-based Strauss food and beverage group.

The complaint to the AHRC is based on the federal Racial Discrimination Act. Complaints before the commission are the subject of a process of conciliation but, if that is unsuccessful, they can be taken to the Federal Court in the same way that Andrew Bolt was the subject of proceedings — also under the Racial Discrimination Act — because of his statements about a number of prominent Aborigines.

The relevant provision of the Racial Discrimination Act makes it unlawful to “do any act involving a distinction, exclusion, restriction or preference based on race, colour, descent or national or ethnic origin” that has the purpose or effect of nullifying or impairing any human right or fundamental freedom. This wording arguably raises more questions than it answers, but presumably the complaint in this case alleges conduct based on Israeli national origin or Jewish race or ethnic origin. In fact, the promotion of the boycott appears to be based on political opposition to the Israeli position and not the grounds identified in the legislation.

I have written occasionally on the Middle East, broadly in support of Israel, and I imagine these views would be highly unattractive to BDS supporters.

But if freedom of speech means anything, it means the freedom to put forward views that are highly offensive to some groups and, on occasion, to almost all members of the community.

Why shouldn’t it be possible to argue for the boycott of Japanese cars on the basis of that country’s whaling policies or the boycott of Chinese clothing imports on the ground of China’s indifference to the rights and freedoms present in most Western countries?

These kinds of campaigns have traditionally been ineffective but that is not a reason to prohibit them.

The use of bodies such as the AHRC and the Federal Court to stifle the publication of political views, however distasteful they may be to some sections of society, underlines again the dangers of legislation that allows and encourages these kinds of attacks on freedom of speech.

Early this year the University of Sydney was the subject of another debate about freedom of speech when it emerged that it has a formal policy that prohibits behaviour that would offend, insult or humiliate persons on such grounds as age, sex, political opinion, sexuality or religion. Penalties for breach of the policy by students include suspension, expulsion or fines.

No one would normally want to encourage conduct that is insulting or humiliating of individuals but sometimes this is the stuff of political debate. And the notion that offensive statements in the course of exchanges on social and political questions could lead to suspension or expulsion seems completely antithetical to the idea of a university.

The same could be said of the reaction of the Australian National University last May to a satirical article in its student newspaper that described a passage from the Koran as a “rape fantasy”. The article was the last in a series of satires about religions that had previously dealt with Catholicism, Scientology, Mormonism and Judaism. There didn’t seem to be any problem about lampooning these beliefs. But in this last case the university administration forced the editors of the newspaper to pulp the material after threatening them with expulsion from the university and withdrawal of the publication’s funding.

These cases all concern universities but there are many areas in Australia where tolerance of strong opinions is confined by many people to those opinions with which they happen to agree. There is too much legislation at the federal and state levels that encourages this blinkered outlook on the world. A review of this legislation is long overdue and may stimulate a more robust debate in this country on significant public issues.

Michael Sexton SC is the author of several books on Australian politics and history.

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