The law that gets the most media attention for being anti-free speech in Australia is Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act which makes it unlawful ‘’’to offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate another person or a group of people” because of their “race, colour or national or ethnic origin”. It was most famously used to ban two of Andrew Bolt’s articles about aboriginal identity and three Queensland University of Technology students who were sued under 18C for objecting to being kicked out of an Aboriginal only computer lab on Facebook which offended academic Cindy Prior. Currently in the Australian Senate Cory Bernardi is leading a Coalition backbench revolt to repeal 18C which is supported by crossbenchers David Leyonhjelm, Bob Day, Derryn Hinch and Pauline Hanson’s One Nation. The Institute of Public Affairs has run a campaign for many years advocating 18C’s repeal.
However 18C isn’t the only anti-free speech law in Australia, there is another which is deserving of more scrutiny than it currently receives as its effects are much more chilling. This is Section 474.17 of the Federal Criminal Code which makes it illegal to use a carriage service to menace, harass or cause offence. Originally intended to cover phone communications it has now become used to prosecute people who make mean comments or troll others on Facebook. Feminists and social justice warriors claim that the internet is full of online violence which is mostly just people disagreeing with their extreme opinions. So this law is a perfect mechanism for them to silence those they disagree with online and try and make the internet a ‘safe space’ for everyone.
It should be pointed out that many of the people prosecuted under 474.15 have said some very unpleasant things. But other than causing offence is there really any further action that these comments lead to? The most recent example was when Chris Nelson was charged with making a racist Facebook comment to Nova Peris after she announced she was quitting politics after just one term. The comment was very vulgar saying amongst other things “Go back to the bush and suck on witchity [sic] grubs and yams’’. He pleaded guilty, but was prosecuting him really a good use of police time? Nova Peris shared his comment on her Facebook page which resulted in his reputation already being damaged. Also by prosecuting him it furthers the perception that public figures like Peris are special snowflakes who can’t handle mean things being said. However we shouldn’t be surprised as Peris said we shouldn’t criticize her unless we are Aboriginal.
This law is a dangerous threat to free speech as anybody who engages in a heated online discussion could find themselves on the end of a criminal prosecution. The law is actually worse than 18C which only allows civil action but Section 474.17 carries a maximum penalty of two years in jail. Dr Andre Oboler who leads an organisation called the Online Hate Prevention Institute openly supports more prosecutions under this law stating ‘’A few words said online are not a trivial matter.” With feminist groups claiming that mean comments are the equivalent to actual violence and rape it is clear that laws such as this will be used not just to silence their critics online but for further laws against free speech.
There is a new advocacy group called Sexual Violence Won’t Be Silenced (SVWBS) which advocates for harsher laws against mean comments. Video game developer Zoe Quinn claims she has post-traumatic stress disorder from online abuse but conceded her case for taking action against the trolls was weak due to the defence that she “deserved it” and that her trauma “wasn’t that bad”. They are having an effect in other countries such as New Zealand where the Harmful Digital Communications Act, making it an offence to “send messages and post material online that deliberately cause serious emotional distress” with fines of up to $50,000.
Yes its true mean comments can hurt our feelings, but most of the time they are anonymous insults designed to get a reaction out of the person they are aimed at. Online threats or abuse via comments or discussions threads hardly ever lead to actual violence or sex offences. Laws against them not only threaten free speech on the internet, but they are likely to lead to an ever more vicious cycle of mean comments and trolls and people getting triggered by them. Everyone should just accept that these comments are just the reality of the internet and that most deserve to be ignored as just a means for someone to get attention. Laws such as Section 474.17 if they ae more regularly enforced will lead to less actual constructive debates online and risk innocent people being hauled before the courts because someone got offended.