Mitchell Grant

18C: Free speech and outrage culture clash

Approx Reading Time-11Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act is back in the spotlight, stoking a fire over free speech that flames even Left and Right default convention.


The proposed reform and possible repeal of Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act is part of a policy contest that won’t dissipate. It frustrates, enlivens and offends (I couldn’t resist) many, and with good reason. Quite importantly, the debate surrounding 18C is representative of a broader Western cultural clash. At the heart of that clash is a challenge through which the essential meaning, and indeed value, of freedom of speech has been brought into question.

It has played out on many stages and in many countries. Most recently in Australia, the Queensland University of Technology case was salient due to the absurdly high figure sought by the plaintiff and the curious frivolity of the complaint. Cynthia Prior “claimed she had been vilified” on Facebook by three students who posted online that their removal from an Indigenous-only computer lab was an example of “fighting segregation with segregation”. The case was duly thrown out of court, but those who challenge 18C argue that it should never have landed in court in the first place because the marketplace of ideas should not be patrolled by the state.

In awareness of backbench pressure on his leadership and, to be fair, the merit of that argument, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has given his support for an inquiry and possibly reform. He has stated that there “is a view that the bar is set too low, in other words that prescribing conduct which insults and offends is too much a restriction on free speech.” It is argued further that the Human Rights Council completely missed the mark by not coming out stronger on the side of free speech in the QUT case. Freedom of speech is one of the benchmarks of human rights, and if it were properly enshrined in an Australian Bill of Rights, it is likely that 18C could be struck down as unconstitutional.

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That most significant of changes is a proposition for the future, and not the situation in which the present debate is taking place. 18C will not be changed without a fight, as there is a substantial movement in favour of the restrictions it delineates. A great example of what mainstream press support for the movement here in Australia looks like can be found in Waleed Aly’s Sydney Morning Herald article from September 1, 2016 which cites 18D as a fair qualifier of “acceptable” speech. When the Keating Government established it in 1995, it was a reasonable attempt at qualifying 18C, but is speech truly free if it can be arbitrated at the whim of any administration? In the above article, Waleed Aly, like those of the same perspective, wonders why it is that supporters of amendments to 18C won’t accept the conditions of 18D (namely, that certain expressions of artistic merit and intent are acceptable under the law). It is in the weight of the aforementioned question that he can find his answer.

That movement – of 18C supporters – takes from international influence, the strongest of which coming (presently) from the United States, where the very public advancement of grievances like the one at QUT has become commonplace on liberal-arts campuses. In some instances, they pose a legitimate threat to the careers of faculty members who resist the desire of an increasing number of students to have the university be in loco parentis – to play the role of their parents.

Gone, in other words, are the days in which universities were lauded as facilities for warring ideas.

Often attributed to Oscar Wilde is the distinctly Victorian rejoinder that “a true gentleman is one who is never offensive by accident.” Absent, it seems, from this movement is the sense of humour, introspection, and irony that sees the quality of such a perspective.

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The 18C debacle is sometimes considered to be one that can be defined under the umbrellas of Left and Right. This is particularly because the support for reform can be found largely on the Right of the Coalition, and its detractors amongst their Labor and Green counterparts. But this is erroneous. The issue quite obviously transcends these boundaries. In fact, freedom of expression is one of the great traditions of the Left, yet many Leftists have unfortunately forgotten this and in doing so, have chosen new roles as the supposed arbitrators of the acceptable and the profane, with too much identity in their politics. As for the Right, it has a deep historical tradition of censorship, often embodied by Christian concerns for the alleged “moral decay” of Western society.

The lines of division are therefore not as simple as they might seem.

In recently discussing the declining standards of political debate, Jill Lepore cited several instances of general public disinterest in discursive conflict and “unwelcome political ideas”. There is, in other words, a popular taste for protection from the insulting and the offensive. Many people long for the maintenance or expansion of laws which bar these things.

Poignantly, she asked, “What kind of democracy is that?”

I share her concern.


Mitchell Grant

Mitchell Grant is an Honours student studying Politics and International Relations at the University of Newcastle, Australia. His current research focuses on the history of political conflict in Iraq, and his broader interests include Australian politics, international affairs, and the fiction of P.G. Wodehouse. You can follow him on Twitter: @Mitchell_JGrant

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