Submission to the Inquiry into Serious Vilification and Hate Crimes

Caxton Legal Centre recently made submissions to the Queensland Parliamentary Committee Inquiry into Serious Vilification and Hate Crimes in Queensland.  Below is the oral submission provided by Bridget Burton, Director, Human Rights and Civil Law Practice. 

Good afternoon. I acknowledge the traditional owners of the land we are meeting on today, the Yuggera and Turrbul people.

Separately, I pay respects to the leaders and members of communities who spoke on Friday – I managed to watch some of that. It was particularly moving to see people relay their experiences of vilification without using the language they had been subjected to, out of respect for the place we are in.

In this place, where important, robust and intense debates are had, where laws are made – you manage entirely without using language that incites ridicule, contempt and hatred. Those with power remind others there are standards, that will be upheld. This inquiry is an opportunity to extend these standards to make safe other places where people gather physically and virtually, to live their lives and to share opinions and ideas.

Yesterday the High Court handed down its decision in Fairfax Media Publications Pty Ltd v Voller [2021] HCA 27. This case, mentioned in our submission, looked at the responsibilities of media outlets who posted stories on Facebook under which members of the public made comments about Mr Voller.  Mr Voller brought defamation proceedings not against the individual commenters, or Facebook, but against the media outlets who posted the stories.

In the lead judgment, Chief Justice Kiefel, and Justices Keane and Gleeson write: “…the acts of the appellants in facilitating, encouraging and thereby assisting the posting of comments by the third-party Facebook users rendered them publishers of those comments. ”

I want to sit this next to another quote this time from a Queensland vilification case GLBTI v Wilks & Anor [2007] QADT 27: “To use the forum provided by the newspaper to publish such material to a population which may include people who are “reluctantly tolerant” of homosexuals, objectively incites those if not others to cease tolerance and proceed down the path of hatred, ridicule and contempt.”

I went back late yesterday, after reading the decision in Fairfax Media v Voller, and had another look at the QPS Facebook page which we refer to in our submission. I’m singling out QPS, not to have a go and the problem is widespread, but because this inquiry also asks why people are reluctant to complain to police about vilification.

There is a post a few days ago, informing us two teenagers were charged with murder. No race is mentioned in the post itself which includes a stock photo of white hands in handcuffs. However, in the comments section we find: ‘Should be a picture of black hands. It’s common knowledge who they are’, ‘deport them immediately, I for one am fed up with representatives of the Africa community making excuses’, and ‘they are imported savages.’ Another post late yesterday involved a stolen car in Townsville. No mention in the post itself of age or race, but in the comment section assumptions are made that we’re talking about Aboriginal children and then this: ‘nothing a few Glock rounds can’t fix’.

Is it really necessary for a person who is made less safe by comments like this and who may now be frightened, to mount risky, exhausting litigation to see if a Court or Tribunal will order those comments be removed? And to maybe wait nine years for that decision?

The current regime is no longer fit for the ways we live. This inquiry is a rare opportunity, which we may not see again, to shift away from a framework that makes those worst affected by vilification and hate speech do the hard work and carry the risk on behalf of the whole community, and to replace that with clear, functional, usable state powers and responsibilities across a range of departments and agencies. Preventing hate crimes by acting on hate speech should be the serious and everyday business of all of us.

Thank you