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How soft on people's feelings should the law become?

By John de Meyrick - posted Monday, 4 September 2017


It is often claimed that the law is soft on crime and weak on social and civil wrongdoing. By comparison with what it was like during the life and times of 19th Century Australia, our present-day laws are indeed soft. Very soft.

Stealing a sheep in the 1820s invited the death penalty. Convicts were flogged for being rude to an official; and if you couldn’t pay your debts then off you went to the equivalent of the notorious debtors’ prisons of Dickensian London (although by 1834 debtors were being allowed to move within confined prescribed locations outside prison).

All of that changed with the moving times. Steal sheep now and you might get away with a community service order; prisoners treated badly by prison officials can complain to the Human Rights Commission, and even sue; and if you are unable to pay your debts then (with certain exceptions) you have a way out with bankruptcy laws or counselling.

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Also, when George Howe was given permission to publish Australia’s first newspaper, The Sydney Gazette in 1803, the country was not ready for a free press or freedom of speech, the paper had to be “passed by the governor’s inspector.”

But now, subject to defamation laws, you can say or criticise anyone you like…Well, wait on, that is unless you offend, insult or humiliate someone whose delicate sensibilities and precious feelings are claimed to have been hurt.

I’m referring, of course, to the long-running debate over section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act 1975 (Cth) in respect of which several trivial complaints with a racial connotation as dealt with by the Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) has given rise to public controversy and concern.

Although 18C was opposed by the Coalition when it was introduced by the Keating Government in 1994, it remained a ‘sleeper’ until recent events when, instead of our politicians recognising the danger it poses to freedom of expression and immediately acting to repeal it, they argued over it for five years ending with the Government’s attempted (unsatisfactory) amendment being blocked by Labor, the Greens and a querulous cross-bench in the Senate.

So this troublesome provision remains firmly on the statute books as the first and only piece of mollycoddling soft and ‘sooky’ law that addresses and compensates people for their hurt feelings rather than for any actual harm that may have been done to them.

What the fuss was, and still is, about is not widely appreciated. But it could be said that if you told one of the 6.25bn people in the World who do not have an unfettered right of freedom of speech or a free press that, in Australia, you can find yourself before a court for allegedly having hurt someone’s feelings due to a casual remark, or something you published, that was construed to mean you are a racist, they would be likely to suggest that you should be careful where your country is heading.

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So the issue is not just about hurting another person’s feelings in regard to their race, it involves a very significant and insidious shift in the way soft politics is prepared to jeopardise long-standing, fundamental, democratic rights and freedoms that belong to us all by yielding to the ‘can’t-say-no’ demands of activist groups seeking privileged rights.

To make it worse the Shadow Attorney-General, Mark Dreyfus, proposes to extend the concept of section 18C to other areas of statutory discrimination when Labor is next in office.

If that were to come to pass claims of alleged hurt feelings due to things said or done or written or expressed, about someone or an identifiable group, would then apply to other areas of discrimination relating to age, sex, disability, religion, political opinion, national extraction, social origin, criminal records, marital or relationship status, pregnancy, breast feeding, family or carer responsibilities and so forth, all of those areas being currently covered by anti-discrimination laws.

The number of narks and religious dissidents in the community would, for example, then have statutory grounds to complain that their feelings were being hurt by exposure in shopping centres and other public places to Santa Claus, carol singing, nativity scenes, decorated trees, coloured lights and other expressions of the Christmas Season.

(Anti-Christmas activists have already forced concessions in some communities whilst government policy decisions or lack thereof – such as the recent on/off ban on carols being sung in Victorian public schools – are already a short-cut means of applying pressure politics.)

Also, another example would be if you called someone a “silly old fool” or depicted old people by way of a cartoon or joke (and there is any number of them now about the frailties of old age).

Yet another example relating to a current issue would be if people, Aboriginal or otherwise, complained that they were offended by the sight of statues in public places of people whose contribution to the nation they disputed and despised.

Think too of the skilful pussy-footing and use of language one would need when criticising someone’s political opinion, especially that of a politician.

Based on s.18C criteria, anyone who claimed their feelings had been hurt by such examples could readily file a complaint or class action seeking compensation and costs. It would open up a vast new area of litigation (beyond what has already occurred) and silence all but the incautious fools among us.

Statutory defences to such claims (such as those provided by section 18D of the Racial Discrimination Act) would not provide protection for the inoffensive, unstudied and naïve person, particularly as “to offend, insult, humiliate”, in terms of 18C, virtually constitutes an absolute breach.

So how did it come to this? How much softer in mollifying people’s hurt feelings should the law become?  

Soft politicians make soft laws. But as statutory laws are made by politicians and politicians are supposed to represent the will of the people, should it be assumed that where the law stands and where it is heading in regard to such matters must simply be reflecting the majority will of mainstream Australia?

Well, query first: Is there a mainstream artery of public opinion in Australia today, or only a collection of sub-stream disparate opinions and causes? In any case, where do we now locate the nation’s pulse?

You see, the difficulty we now face is we live in an age of ideological self-awareness. A world of identity politics and human rights activism where those among us with any common characteristic or condition, or particular cause or opinion, can coalesce into active pressure groups each demanding recognition of its perceived ‘cotton wool’ rights.

When soft and ‘sooky’ laws are made to appease minority interests one person’s rights then become a challenge to the pre-established rights of another. Tensions arise. Community resentment sets in. Tolerance, the ‘glue’ which binds us together as a nation (which the Prime Minister keeps referring to) begins to lose its grip. The question is: when you can’t please everybody whose tolerance should have to concede? 

This situation results in significant numbers of disaffected voters who feel that their views are being ignored, that long standing common values are being eroded, that traditional politics has forsaken them. They go drifting off to join and support radical movements and ultra-conservative political parties.

Unhelpful too is the gratuitous advice provided by the chattering classes: the many commentators, lobby groups, sectional interests, think tanks, ‘shock jocks’, on-line chat rooms and all those with personal computers who are able to exercise their (present) unfettered right of freedom of expression. It all adds to an excessive volume and diversity of opinion which doesn’t always result in clarity of thought or the formulation of best policies and best outcomes.

Where this situation becomes critical is when policies and statutory provisions begin to interfere with fundamental rights and freedoms that are not only firmly embedded in the very foundation of our nation and our democratic system of government, but in the Australian psycheas well.

Meddling with such basic rights as freedom of speech not only troubles a wary public it also creates tension between government and the judicial process; for although statutory law may override the common law it cannot change constitutional law without the approval of the people; and whilst the Australian Constitution does not specifically provide for freedom of speech the High Court has held that it is implied therein to the extent of preventing legislative or executive power from curtailing that right.

(A recent poll conducted by the Institute of Public Affairs found that 95 percent of Australians regard freedom of speech to be important whilst 57 percent regard it as very important.)

The right of freedom of speech and expression, like every other freedom, is not absolute. It is curtailed where its use goes too far and causes, or could cause, harm. In particular it is curtailed by the laws of defamation where hurt feelings are expressly precluded as grounds for compensation.

Freedom of speech is also restricted by legislation that allows the Minister for Immigration to deny a person entering the country on (say) a speaking tour, if his or her ‘message’ and purpose is likely to cause public harm and/or disturbance to public order (although many champions of freedom of speech argue that, if our views and beliefs are steadfast, what should we fear by denying radicals and bigots the same right to be heard?).

In any case, putting aside such considerations, section 18C should be recognised by our lawmakers as just bad law. Bad for at least three reasons:

Firstly, 18C has been drafted the wrong way round. Instead of making the “act” of discrimination in what was said and/or done to be the wrongdoing, it makes the effect of that “act” (the alleged hurt feelings) the subject of the complaint and compensation.                 

The problem with that anomaly is that a person’s feelings is not relevant to the purpose and intent of the law. What should constitute the wrongdoing is whether the characterisation of what is said and/or done, in the sense of the harm it has caused or may cause to pubic values and community well-being, amounts to discrimination, irrespective of whether the complainant’s feelings have been hurt by it or not.

Think of it this way: If you drove a vehicle through a red light and almost ran down a pedestrian who is crossing the street, then the wrongdoing at law abides in the danger such action is likely to cause to public safety, not the shock or upset feelings of the pedestrian who missed being injured. That only matters if what happened has caused the pedestrian some actual harm.

Next, section 18C is not in keeping with the important distinction between how the law regards what is said or done in terms of hurt and harm. That is: the common law has no interest in redressing hurt feelings. Only the harm that has, or may have, been caused by such acts.

This means that disparaging expressions of opinion which offend, insult, humiliate, mock, deride, criticise, ridicule, belittle, antagonise, scorn and so forth having the same synomic value, may hurt a person’s feelings but they are not (or should not be) per se, grounds for redress at law. Such expressions of opinion need to cause, or be likely to cause, some form of actual harm, such as to intimidate, abuse, incite, threaten, harass, bully, defame and so forth.

As the High Court has noted (to quote just one of its references to freedom of opinion), “The law is not primarily concerned to provide redress for those who are the subject of disparaging expressions of opinion; freedom of opinion (subject to necessary restrictions) is a basic democratic right…”

What 18C does is make hurt feelings per se, an actionable grievance, at least in respect of racial discrimination (and with the possibility of it being extended to other forms of statutory discrimination as the Shadow Attorney-General proposes). But should that be the case where what is said or done has not caused any actual harm to anyone?

Of course, to offend, insult, humiliate and so forth can be harmful when used to intimidate, abuse, incite, or threaten, etc, especially when the act is directed at vulnerable ‘targets’. It can also be harmful if used to the point of causing mental anxiety, stress and illness. But even then it is always the harm that is the wrongdoing and the reason for redress, not the injured feelings.

As well as discrimination, there are many cases in our courts which involve things said and done that cause emotional upset even on a lesser scale than hurt feelings. For example disappointment in (say) the cancellation of a special sporting event or a holiday package for which pre-payment has been made. In that case it is the loss of the contract not the disappointment that is compensable.

Thirdly, 18C is not consistent with the purpose of the 1965 UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, Australia’s adoption of which gave rise to the Racial Discrimination Act in 1975.

The purpose of that Convention is clear: Whilst requiring parties to it to specifically guarantee to everyone the “right of freedom of opinion and expression”, it directs that action be taken, inter alia, to condemn, declare and punish as an offence any and all forms of race-hate behaviour, vilification, propaganda, incitement and violence.

Nowhere in the Convention do the words “to offend, insult [or] humiliate” appear, and nowhere does it require adopting states to redress people’s hurt feelings or to pay them compensation.

Indeed, there is very little federal, state or territory legislation, either civil or criminal, which effectively complies with the purpose of the Convention. (The initial Racial Hatred Act 1974 (Cth) which came about by the adoption of the Convention, was revised and became the 1975 Act.)

Incidentally, none of this controversy over 18C would have seen the light of day had the AHRC applied the ‘ordinary and reasonable person’ test to the cases that have caused such concern; for although that test is not referred to in the AHRC’s Act – and it need not be as it is a long-standing doctrine of the common law available to the AHRC as a para-judicial body – it has the express power to dismiss complaints that are “trivial, vexatious, misconceived or lacking in substance”.

Nothing is more telling of the AHRC’s handling of complaints in regard to racial discrimination than, as the records show, that when the AHRC functioned as a tribunal in the period 1/6/87 to 7/5/01 it dealt with 118 complaints (average 8.4 per year) of which 78 complaints (66 percent) were dismissed for various reasons, mostly under (then) section 25X, being for “frivolous, vexatious, misconceived” etc, reasons (section 18C having been in operation for about the last 6 of those 14 years); whereas last year 2015-16, the AHRC dealt with 429 complaints of which 55 (only 12.8 percent) were dismissed and of that number only 3 were reported to have been dismissed for “trivial, vexatious, misconceived” etc, reasons.

So, not only has the number of complaints of racial discrimination increased dramatically over time, the number dismissed as trivial or vexatious, etc, has dramatically declined.

It may be assumed from the statistics that whilst section 18C is bad law and should never have been enacted, it has attracted a great many more complaints for the AHRC to deal with, and that in so doing the Commission has had less reason to dismiss those complaints as trivial, etc, where the effect of what was said or done, as alleged, appeared on the facts to be, prima facie, offensive, insulting or humiliating. After all, 18C makes hurt feelings the basis for judgment.

The former President of the AHRC, Professor Gillian Triggs, completed her five years appointment in July this year. Whatever may be said of her performance, her fault (if seen as such) was to have given to section 18C its widest ordinary meaning and application as enacted. Accordingly, problems in making it work should be blamed as much on the legislation as well as on those who made it.

It should not be overlooked that the AHRC has also dealt with many cases of racial discrimination (and other similar forms) where actual harm has occurred, mostly in the area of employment where loss of benefit, advancement or privilege and other disadvantages were involved.

More important in all of this is that the law is now heading off into a new and dangerous area of regulation, attempting to appease and redress claims of emotional hurt. The belated alarm bells of 1984 should now be ringing in the ears of our lawmakers and only fools would not be listening.

For in trying to create a fairer, kinder world the law cannot serve all causes nor address all the emotional upsets and unpleasant experiences of humankind. As a former prime minister once noted, life wasn’t meant to be easy. Hurt feelings is a part of daily life.

We do not need laws for everything. We have more than enough now. As Thomas Jefferson observed some 200 years ago. ”My reading of history convinces me that most bad government results in too much government”.

Section 18C must go. It must not be left to grow into a new body of soft and ‘sooky’ laws, the end to which defies contemplation.

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About the Author

John de Meyrick is a barrister (ret’d), lecturer and writer on legal affairs.

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