New Freedom Commissioner

December 19, 2013 by J-Wire Staff
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The Australian government appointed Tim Wilson as commissioner to the Australian Human Rights Commission.

Timn Wilson

Tim Wilson

The new brief is for the protection of freedom of expression. The creation of this role is to welcomed as freedom of expression is an important human rights. Past statements by the new commissioners (before taking up the appointment) do, however, raise some cause for concern.

The new commissioner  has spent the last seven years as head of the conservative think tank the Institute of Public Affairs. During that time he made statements calling for the abolition of the Australian Human Rights Commission. He also expressed support for the abolition of S18C of the Racial Discrimination Act, the section which provides protection against hate speech in Australia. Most concerning, he has said he is unconvinced that there is a human right against discrimination, and he believe free speech should override any effort to protect minority groups from hate speech.  The appointment is of particular interest to the Online Hate Prevention Institute as Mr Wilson has highlighted online speech as one of three areas he wishes to focus upon.

OHPI’s CEO, Dr Andre Oboler, commented that, “Freedom of expression is never an absolute, and international law which urges the protection of freedom of expression also stressed its limitations. The incitement to hate is one area not protected by freedom of expression. Tim Wilson has in his past roles taken an absolutist position on freedom of speech which is incompatible with human rights. Hopefully his new role, and discussion with others in the commission, will see this position moderate.”

President of  The Executive Council of Australian Jewry Robert Goot told J-Wire: “One of the most pervasive misconceptions about section 18C is that it prescribes a subjective test based on hurt feelings.  The contrary is true. In every section 18C case, without exception, the court has held that it must make an objective assessment of the position itself, so that community standards of behaviour rather than the subjective views of the complainant are the decisive consideration. Further, the racially vilifying conduct is only prohibited if it is profound or serious in nature.

Holocaust denial and other forms of racial vilification have nothing to do with a debate about ideas or opinions.  They are a cover for making vile generalisations about entire groups of people based on their race, skin colour or national or ethnic origin.  In most cases, this kind of abuse is easily despatched in the market-place of ideas.  Occasionally, however, an attack on the reputation of an entire community is so outrageous that a more authoritative kind of debate is called for, the kind that takes place in a court of law.  To deny communities the right to defend their reputation in this way, using their own resources, would be the real injustice.

The absolutist position on free speech is simplistic and extreme.  There are countervailing freedoms which also need to be protected, including the freedom of all citizens to live their lives in peace without being subjected to racist harassment, intimidation or abuse.”



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