Andrew Bolt found guilty of breaching Racial Discrimination Act

By Rebecca Devitt

28 September 2011

Herald Sun columnist Andrew Bolt has been found guilty of breaching section 18 (c) of the Racial Discrimination Act 1975 in the Federal Court of Australia. The case had been brought before the Federal Court by nine indigenous Australian’s including academic Professor Larissa Behrendt, activist Pat Eatock, author Anita Heiss and former ATSIC chairman Geoff Clark alleging that two articles by Bolt published in 2009 and two blog posts on the Herald Sun’s website implied that they had “identified as Aborigines in order to gain career, social or other advantage.”

In his judgement Justice Mordecai Bromberg found Bolt guilty of breaching section 18 of the Racial Discrimination Act, stating “I am satisfied that fair-skinned Aboriginal people (or some of them) were reasonably likely…to have been offended, insulted, humiliated or intimidated by the imputations conveyed by the newspaper articles.”

Section 18 (c) of the Racial Discrimination Act states that “it is unlawful for a person to do an act, otherwise than in private, if the act is likely to offend and insult another person and the act is done because of race, colour or ethnic origin.” An act is viewed not to be done in private if it “causes words or writing to be communicated to the public.”

In this case Justice Bromberg found that “people should be free to fully identify with their race without fear or public disdain or loss of esteem for so identifying…on this basis of my findings, I am satisfied that each of Mr Bolt and the Herald & Weekly Times engaged in conduct which contravened section 18c of the Racial Discrimination Act.”

The case and judgement has raised important questions about the right to free speech and protection from racial discrimination in Australia. Part IIA of the Racial Discrimination Act deals with finding a balance between freedom of expression and racial discrimination as acknowledged by Justice Bromberg in his decision. Spencer Zifcak, president of Liberty Victoria said that the case was important because “it required the judge to weigh in the balance the right to be free of racial intolerance and discrimination on the one hand, and freedom of expression on the other.”

Anita Heiss one of the nine who brought the case against Bolt in a statement on the Federal Court’s decision said “I believe the result means that Australia will have a higher quality and more responsible media, and that to some degree the persecution of Aboriginal people in the press will be lessened. ”

The decision has been met with some criticism by those who see it as a breach of the right to freedom of expression. Derryn Hinch on 3AW has argued that the racial discrimination laws are “repressive” and curtail freedom of speech, whilst Opposition Leader Tony Abbott, following the decision, warned against “restricting the sacred principle of free speech.”

However Judge Bromberg in his decision made it very clear that his ruling did not stop debate or forbid the publication of articles on racial identification if done “reasonably and in good faith.”  There was jubilation in the court as the judgement was read out with activitst Pat Eatock stating that “we will, I hope get some sort of acknowledgement through the press that what he wrote was unacceptable, totally unacceptable.”

The full judgement can be found here.

Anita Heiss’s statement can be found here