While the desire to cripple our protections against public racial vilification appears to be a boutique issue of libertarian theory, the impact of racial hate speech is as broad as it is deeply personal, and anything but theoretical.
In 1992, I was nine years old and living with my late brother and parents in an apartment in Randwick in the eastern suburbs of Sydney. We had arrived in Australia four years earlier as refugees from the former Soviet Union. The status of Soviet Jews as a persecuted minority group had been recognised on the basis of institutional discrimination, which imposed entry quotas on Jews to many universities, inhibited their entry into various professions and totally denied them the right to practise their faith.
As cruel and unjust as the state-sanctioned discrimination against Jews in the Soviet Union was, the every day, casual racism stung more. Ask any Soviet Jew about their experiences and they will recall with unhealed sorrow and pain the humiliation they suffered daily on public transport, in the schoolyard, in the workplace. They will tell you about the fear and debasement they felt when reading stories in the state press about the cunning agitators and capitalist speculators, always given caricatured Jewish names, undermining the state from within.
We thought that dark chapter of our lives had been permanently sealed when we came to Australia and, for the most part, it has been. We live freely in this great land and are thankful for it daily.
But above us in that apartment in Randwick we came across someone intent on importing foreign prejudices and in reminding us that, in spite of our studied efforts to integrate into our new society, we were not welcome.
It began one day with bellowing rants from his balcony, which sat directly above ours, about “the Jews”. I remember well the deep bass of his voice, mocking in tone and utterly terrifying in pitch as he would lament that “Hitler did not finish the job.” I would read many years later about the Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel’s observations of the Soviet Jews when he travelled there in the 1960s. He recorded seeing fear etched on every Jewish face, without exception. As a boy of nine I needed only to look at the terror-stricken faces on my parents at that moment to see what Wiesel had.
The abuse would continue daily for months. “I will finish the job,” was frequently added to the critique of Hitler’s unfinished genocide. The police were called many times. My parents beseeched them not to wait until he acts but were told each time that, until an act of violence occurs, his mere words were outside the operation of the law.
There was no 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act then and in truth I do not know if it would have provided us adequate comfort or protection. Legal processes are invariably cumbersome and rarely do they fully erase the loss that has been suffered. But what is clear is that to remove existing prohibitions on racist hate speech, to make lawful the public humiliation of others on the basis of their ethnicity would be a dark and retrograde measure. It would articulate a new official position of laxity towards racism. Such a move would be unbecoming of our great and liberal nation.