POLL: Hate speech laws 'out of date'

Hate speech laws have been around for more than 20 years – but that hasn’t stopped the haters, according to Queensland academic Katharine Gelber.

The recent controversy over broadcaster Alan Jones – a serial offender when it comes to vitriolic tirades against individuals or groups – demonstrated why these laws needed an overhaul, Associate Professor Gelber said.

Prof Gelber and University of Wollongong Professor Luke McNamara have looked at comments made publicly during incidents such as the Cronulla riots of 2005, the Tampa incident in 2001 and the 9/11 attacks in the US, during their research into hate speech laws.

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Their preliminary findings, which they outlined at a law seminar at UOW on Wednesday, show that laws have not moved with the times.

‘‘We looked at the content of letters to the editors of a number of Australian newspapers over a 20-year period from 1989, when the first anti-vilification laws were enacted in NSW,’’ Prof Gelber said.

 ‘‘We found that the words used to express prejudice have changed significantly in that time. 

‘‘So rather than the crude and harmful language we witnessed 15 years ago, in recent years people are using words that don’t at first appear prejudicial, but within the context of the whole letter they are quite prejudicial.

‘‘For instance, when talking about same-sex couples phrases like ‘‘alternative lifestyle’’ or ‘‘lifestyle choice’’ may be used; or when talking about asylum seekers the word ‘‘queue jumper’’ may feature.’’

Prof Gelber said this moderation of hateful language meant the writers of these letters couldn’t be targeted under  anti-vilification laws.

‘‘This raises the usefulness of these laws in targeting prejudice and implies that we need to look more seriously at mechanisms beyond the law to combat prejudice in the community,’’ she said.

‘‘For instance, broadcasters or political leaders need to set the standard for public debate, and if they use prejudicial speech then the fall-out from these comments needs to be far stronger.’’

Prof Gelber said the research revealed that while complaints lodged over vilification had dropped off ‘‘significantly’’ over the last two decades, community reports indicated it was rife. 

‘‘So it would seem that people are just not using the anti-vilification laws to seek a remedy.’’

Prof McNamara, dean of the University of Wollongong Faculty of Law, said to some extent the laws had had a positive effect on public discourse.

‘‘It seems that the presence of these laws has changed the nature of language regarded as acceptable in the public domain,’’ he said.

‘‘This is a positive as we know that slurs and racial epithets do cause significant stress and harm to individuals and groups.

‘‘What is less clear is whether the underlying messages are any less strong than they might have been before these laws.’’

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