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Andrew Bolt and free speech

  • 01 April 2011

Melbourne Herald Sun columnist Andrew Bolt's appearance in the Federal Courts this week has posed questions about eugenics, identity, race, free speech and welfare fraud.

Nine Indigenous Australians are suing Bolt in a human rights file for breaching the Racial Vilification Act due to what they perceive as gratuitous insults based on race and skin colour that appeared in a number of columns published in 2009. They assert that Bolt's statements claim the fair-skinned Aboriginal Australians 'chose' their identity in order to access 'serious perks and Aboriginal-only benefits', and personally attacked the nine individuals.

Some voices in the media have presented the case as a challenge to free speech in Australia — political correctness gone crazy. However, this case is not about silencing critiques of the construction of race or ethnicity, nor Bolt himself.

Those who fear a breach of freedom of expression in this case need fear only if they intend to engage in personalised attacks based on the racial or ethnic character of their opponents.

Where freedom of expression is enshrined, it cannot reasonably be absolute; moderation is necessary to protect individuals from defamation, violence, and undue vilification. If we believe in liberal expression, it is not our duty to advocate in favour of hate speech and misrepresentation, but rather to understand and critique the political motivations that form the policy which moderates it.

As a high school student, my introduction to liberty ran along simplistic lines: you can do anything, anything at all (an exciting proposition for an adolescent), so long as your doing so does not infringe on anybody else's right to do their 'anything'. So, not really anything (less exciting, more adult).

In a healthy society, liberty is moderated and directed by a sense of some greater good, whether that is social, moral, or legal. Absolute liberty is dystopic, best avoided. Freedom of expression follows similar lines: Bolt can say anything he chooses, so long as his words do not infringe on a person's moral right to enjoy integrity and a reputation that befits her.

While it's conceivable that a person could disingenuously tick the Indigenous or Torres Straight Islander box for some imagined privilege, the real-world benefit in doing so is so minuscule it barely warrants concern. Shrill accusations against the poor of welfare fraud are ubiquitous. Their reality is far less threatening than is the cost of tax evasion by Australia's wealthy.

One of the many problems with Bolt's claims against the