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The Racial Hatred Act: an introduction to this guide

an introduction to this guide

from Zita Antonios, Race Discrimination Commissioner

Although many of us would like it to be otherwise, we cannot ignore
the fact that in Australia there are members of our community who hold
racist views and who abuse and offend people publicly, sometimes inciting
others to do likewise. The Racial Hatred Act was passed in recognition
of the impact of this behaviour on our society.

 Image: Zita Antonios

We have produced this guide to take you through the Racial Hatred Act.
The guide explains the implication of the law for journalists and other media workers and it also provides case
studies
to illustrate some of the issues and questions which are important
to consider when reporting on race matters.

The passage of the new law saw considerable debate, much of it in the
media, which reported widespread misinformation and alarmist predictions
concerning the perceived threat to freedom of speech. The Human Rights
and Equal Opportunity Commission is a strong supporter of free speech.
Along with most Australians, the Commission recognises that freedom of
speech is fundamental to an open and democratic society. Yet the right
to free speech is qualified in its application throughout the world. While
it is valued, it must always be balanced against other rights and interests.

In Australia, we have long had laws which act as constraints on absolute
freedom of speech on matters in the public interest. Such laws recognise
that in any reasonable society, people have a right to be protected from
material they find offensive, or from language that is detrimental to the
individual or community. This new law attempts to strike a balance between
the right to free speech and the right of protection for those who bear
the burden of racial vilification. One year after the Act's passage, as
you will see from this guide, free speech is alive
and well in Australia.

Of course, a national law against racial hatred will not eliminate racism
from Australia overnight. It takes a combination of legislative reform
and a long term commitment to public education to bring about attitudinal
change. The new law does, however, send a reassuring message to targets
of vilification that they have the support of the wider Australian community
and they have a legal recourse in the event of racially motivated acts
of hate.

I hope you will find the guide informative and helpful, and that it
will promote further discussion about the role of the
media
in shaping an Australia free of racism in these challenging and
changing times.

November 1996