Conservative columnist, Andrew Bolt, has been found guilty of causing offence to a ‘racial group’ under Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act. His crime was to question the basis on which some individuals claim to be Aboriginal.

His columns caused offence to nine plaintiffs and therefore he was found guilty of this crime. What is interesting to me is the reaction to the verdict.

Defence of freedom of speech is a traditional position of the left, internationally. Speech reflects thought and restrictions on speech are invariably restrictions on thought, an attempt to stop thoughts deemed bad from being expressed. On this occasion it was a judge’s ruling that the words caused offence that led to the guilty finding.

Those who argue that people should be free to offend others are accused of ‘free speech fundamentalism’. How strange to hear people who claim to be on the left more or less justifying the state’s intimidation of Bolt because they share the state’s displeasure with what he wrote. To avoid the question of free speech, they merely assert that that is not the issue. Everything from Bolt being a “dolt” through to ‘bad journalism’ are seen as the real issue.

The beauty of free speech is that it encourages debate and conflict of ideas. In other words, it is necessary to the goal of greater understanding. Along the way, it offends some. The best response to bad speech is more free speech.

Many argue that free speech is not absolute, yet when it comes to expression of opinions I think it must be absolute lest it be lost. I’m told that defamation laws are a legitimate limitation on free speech but, to me, these laws seem to exist to protect the rich and powerful from criticism. I’m also told that you can’t have a freedom to yell out “fire!” in a crowded theatre. It’s strange that this example is used, given that there is no law against it. Yes, free speech – and freedom in general – comes with risks and costs. But the alternatives come with greater risks and costs.

Those currently gloating about Bolt’s conviction may one day find themselves in front of a judge for expressing views that are offensive to others.

Where people stand on an issue as basic as this serves to further separate left-wing democrats from the pseudo-left. The latter sympathise with, if not support, all manner of social-fascist regimes, so it shouldn’t surprise that they only support free speech for ideas that are acceptable to them.

I think back to the great spirit of 1968 when slogans like “It is forbidden to forbid” inspired many young folk around the world to rebel. And now I look at all the people, including some who embraced such spirit back then, insisting that the only proper freedom is freedom based on responsibility, that it’s okay to deny freedom when it is being used irresponsibly. This begs the obvious question: who decides what is responsible? How bizzare to find people claiming to be left-wing and yet being perfectly happy with the state making the decision.

More free speech means more debate and greater capacity to expose bad ideas for what they are. Bourgeois judges are best kept out of this process.

It is right to rebel! Not: It is right to rebel (but only if not done in an offensive manner).

I’m sorry I have not linked to examples of the points of view I’ve paraphrased. I don’t have time, but I have fairly paraphrased them after following the comments sent in to various blogs, including ‘The Drum’ and ‘Eureka Street’. I don’t think I can be challenged on my portrayal of those positions.


  1. 1 Arthur

    I’ve found the commentary on both sides obnoxious.

    Certainly the legislation can be used oppressively and should therefore be opposed. But I see Bolt as a lying bully rather than a hero of free expression. (Incidentally even if the legislation did not include “offend” and “insult”, the judgment said it would still have caught him under “humiliate” and “intimidate”).

    As with the Danish cartoons, one should defend free speech without siding with the gratuitously offensive.

  2. 2 Dalec

    Hey Barry defend this:
    “Here’s Bolt on Larissa Behrendt: “She’s won many positions and honours as an Aborigine, including the David Unaipon Award for Indigenous Writers, and is often interviewed demanding special rights for ‘my people’. But which people are ‘yours’, exactly, mein liebchen? And isn’t it bizarre to demand laws to give you more rights as a white Aborigine than your own white dad?”
    Among the problems here are that Behrendt’s father was a black Australian, not a white German. And like all the others, Behrendt was raised black. Judge Bromberg wrote: “She denies Mr Bolt’s suggestion that she chose to be Aboriginal and says that she never had a choice, she has always been Aboriginal and has ‘identified as Aboriginal since before I can remember’.” Bolt didn’t contest her evidence.

    Read more:
    Not only gratuitously offensive but total bullshit.
    I agree with Arthur here.

  3. 3 barry

    Hey dalec: defend free speech.

    It’s different to agreeing with, or feeling a need to defend, everything that someone who should be able to exercise that freedom, says. As I said above, the reactions to the case interest me, and there’s a pattern whereby in defending Bolt’s right to express views that are offensive, it is assumed that I must share those views. It seems to me to get back to the notion that free speech should only apply to the like-minded.

  4. 4 patrickm

    ‘I’m also told that you can’t have a freedom to yell out “fire!” in a crowded theatre. It’s strange that this example is used, given that there is no law against it.’
    Just plain wrong. There is plenty of law that can be directed against exactly that type of speech, including though I say it myself, direct proletarian or ‘mob’ law.

    On the more general topic, I was always gobb smacked at the dopey attempts to stop Pauline Hansen speaking.

  5. 5 barry

    patrick, my point was that there’s no specific law but, yes, general laws but these are also laws that can be used to stop people saying other stuff so I see them as problematic. A bit like the old Crimes Act’s ‘offensive behaviour’ – it was so generalised that it was used against protestors as a kind of arrest-them-to-stop-them-protesting-when-there’s-no-specific-law-to-use kind of law.

    Free speech means that the content of Bolt’s views can be debated/opposed/challenged/repudiated/defeated/whatever.

    arthur, I don’t think of him as a hero of free speech but the reaction based on the idea that the court case has no implications for free speech and that ‘this should shut him up’ continues to worry me.

  6. 6 youngmarxist

    First of all, some pedantry: Bolt has not been “found guilty” of anything. It’s been found that he breached the Racial Discrimination Act, but he has *not* committed a criminal offence, so he’s no more criminally guilty than the losing side in a copyright battle between two corporations. (See note at end of RDA S18C (1)).

    I’m wary of the decision too. One thing that’s come up in online discussion is a Canadian parliamentary group labelling campus events such as “Israeli Apartheid Week” as anti-semitic (See link to media release near top of that page). This is an obvious danger to free speech, and one the Right will now feel even less restricted to try out.

    However, something I have not seen at all in the commentary is *any* discussion about why Aboriginal activists and supporters might feel it necessary to use the Racial Discrimination Act to get satisfaction against Bolt.

    If, for example, Aboriginal people feel so oppressed by current discourse that they see using this law against Bolt as one of the only ways they can hit back, why would they give that up just because we want them to?

    If we’d like the Aboriginal people who support the action against Bolt to think and act differently, but we offer no other solution to their political needs, then they will ignore us.

  7. 7 Legal Eagle

    youngmarxist, I take your point, and have been thinking hard about it.

    I think the reasons why Aboriginal people would support the law are complex. One reason they would support it is that, as you say, the laws in question represent an easier way of getting at someone like Bolt. It is not a requirement of the cause of action that you show that what he said is *untrue* (although as it happened, in this case the lack of accuracy was pivotal to the lack of reasonableness and good faith) but merely that what he said is *offensive* (which is far more subjective). I still think that certain of the plaintiffs would have had an arguable case in defamation (that is, that Bolt misrepresented them in such a way as to injure their reputations). And personally, I feel that defamation is a better place to draw the line – we should allow people to be offensive, but we should not allow people to injure the reputations of others by untruthful public comments. I know that I’m in a minority in progressive people in this regard at the moment, but I’m glad to see that I’m not entirely alone.

    The other reason why some Aboriginal people might support the law was averted to by Wesley Aird in the Australian the other day. Namely, there are immense power struggles within Aboriginal communities with regard to who has a right to speak for them and who makes decisions. Certainly, from my own marginal involvement in this area (tutoring Aboriginal students when I was at uni) I saw that such battles could be vicious. One of my students was physically attacked, her home was trashed and she was repeatedly verbally abused because she happened to question the approach of two activists in the community. She had a total nervous breakdown and became suicidal. She ended up in a mental ward for three months. My other students really disliked said activists too, but were too scared to speak out publicly about them.

    The battle between Larissa Behrendt (incidentally a plaintiff in the above action) and Bess Price is another example of a struggle over who gets to speak for a particular group of people. What I wonder now is whether Bess Price could get into trouble for her comments about Behrendt in relation to this decision:

    “I want what she has for my children…The white blackfellas should be happy about the lifestyle they have. They should help us rather than trying to put a barrier between us and what we should be saying. Who does she think she is? I’m very angry about that. How dare she have a go about me without talking to me or confronting me face to face if she has a problem with me. They think that they can control us, that I shouldn’t be commenting or having an opinion on indigenous issues.”

    There’s all kinds of things going on here – and there’s fault lines between race, class and all that within Aboriginal communities. That makes it all a little more complex.

    We’ve done a series of posts over at our place on the decisions:

    My initial response:

    My more considered response having read the decision fully:

    My co-blogger’s response:

  8. 8 Dalec

    Barry , if some dope writes up stuff that is totally untrue and gratuitiously offensive, he or she should be anwered, there is no issue of free speech here.
    Worse than the original transgressor are the dopes who then go on to defend and propoagate this total bullshit on the basis of “free speech” without any investigation into the truth or otherwise of the initial allegations.
    Something about “no investigation, no right to speak” – heard you quote that more than once, Barry.

  9. 9 barry

    dalec, so I take it that you support section 18C and the decision reached against Bolt?

    I agree that he should be answered – I’m all for free speech and debate. Bolt has pretty much been forced into silence on the subject, though, and that’s what I’m against. He has a right to express an offensive point of view. Or is this yet another issue where it’s all “settled” and there should be no debate or discussion?

    Please stop asking me to defend or argue for the content and substance of Bolt’s position. It’s not the point I’m making.

  10. 10 Dalec

    If you wish to defend someones right to spout offensive bullshit, then that is your right. You will get no argument from me.
    I reserve the right to point out that the person whose rights you are defending under the rubrick of free speech is talking utter unresearched (no investigation) crap. That’s all.

  11. 11 barry

    Which is your right. But Bolt can no longer express his point of view, and the ruling will intimidate others. That is why I disagree when you say “There is no issue of free speech here”. And it’s also why I don’t accept your claim to support free speech.

    BTW, the notion of “no investigation, no right to speak” was never intended to be an excuse to drag someone before a court to be punished.

  12. 12 youngmarxist

    Two interesting posts on this issue, both skeptical of the verdict, are at The Piping Shrike and Left Flank

  13. 13 Dalec

    Thanks YM for those posts, I particularily liked”Not only will the result provoke an avalanche of unjustified right-wing hysteria about “rights” and “freedoms” in which the Left and anti-racists will be implicated as censorious and repressive'”from Left Flank.
    Could not have said it better myself.

  14. 14 Arthur

    Worth reading Marcia Langton:

    A good response to Bolt (though not good on “the law”).

  15. 15 paullyj

    read bolts articles in full if you can still find them and then read this

    the only difference is bolt named names and he is white.

    most of you guys hang around universities way too much

  16. 16 paullyj

    and especially this article, in fact i meant this article

    it shows how the pseudo left is absolutely entrenched in universities and the ABC and i think if you do not defend what bolt says you are supporting the most reactionary positions in politics in contempory australia and you might just be part of the problem

    remember your marxism

    tribalism is dead

    and your manifesto

    “Further, as we have already seen, entire sections of the ruling class are, by the advance of industry, precipitated into the proletariat, or are at least threatened in their conditions of existence. These also supply the proletariat with fresh elements of enlightenment and progress.”

    If you want revolution in your lifetime support democratic capitalism any where it raise its ugly head because if you are waiting for anything else you will be waiting a while

  17. 17 Legal Eagle

    Paullyj, that was the piece by Wesley Aird to which I was referring my comment above. It raises some very interesting questions.

  18. 18 Dalec

    For some background on Wesley Aird Check out the Bennelong society.

  19. 19 Brennan

    Identity politics are fascist politics, and, for democrats, universalism trumps chauvinism, even if Andrew Bolt says it does.

  20. 20 Dalec
  21. 21 barry

    Joanthon Holmes, of ABC-TV’s ‘Media Watch’, on the “profoundly disturbing” judgement against Bolt (and for free speech):

  22. 22 Dalec

    Barry, I agree with Holmes.
    The issue for me is that the content – the arrant racist lies – of Bolts article is being defended under the banner of “Free Speech”.

  23. 23 barry

    Lots of people deplore Bolt’s views but support his right to express them, and understand this to be what free speech is about (as against supporting state legislation to punish him for his views and/or only wanting free speech for views with which one agrees). The content of Bolt’s article is best dealt with through ‘more free speech’ – debate and exposure – rather than running off to a court. I liked Marcia Langton’s critique of Bolt’s content in ‘The Age’, though disagree with her when she says free speech does not come into it. I can see how Section 18C could have wider application. At any rate, it should go because it is too broad, too subjective, and antithetical to individual free speech. For what it’s worth (with dalec): I have never endorsed or supported what Bolt said on that occasion.

  1. 1 Skepticlawyer » Pontificating on the Bolt case again

Leave a Reply