Freedom of speech, s 18c and Yassmin Abdel-Maggied

Freedom of speech, s 18c and Yassmin Abdel-Maggied


In March, proposals to repeal s 18c of the Racial Discrimination Act 1975 were defeated in the Senate. The public discourse preceding this decision was heated and divided, and when the announcement was made that 18c would remain intact, it was seen by some as either a victory for concerned minority groups or an attack on free speech.

When Yassmin Abdel-Maggied posted "Lest. We. Forget. (Manus, Nauru, Syria, Palestine…)" on Anzac Day, the internet reacted. Many took offence to Abdel-Maggied’s comment, leading to her deletion of the Facebook status and an apology. She received death threats and abuse, and there were calls for her to be removed from her DFAT position and the ABC.

So what’s the difference between the free speech context of the 18c debate, and the speech made by Abdel-Maggied? What do these examples say about our right to free speech, and how we balance that right with a social, moral and legal responsibility to speak appropriately?

“Free speech” itself isn’t always free; it’s a right that isn’t unlimited. In a society still plagued by discrimination (gendered, racial, hetero-normative, class-based structures still underpin public discourse), we need to temper our rights and responsibilities. Doing so acknowledges that if everyone exercised unlimited free speech, it is those with the most privilege whose speech would be heard the loudest. One person’s free speech is another’s oppression. One person’s rights must sometimes be pulled back for another to have access to theirs.

There are many pieces of legislation in place to achieve this balancing of rights. At a Federal level, there is the well-known Racial Discrimination Act 1975, as well as the Age Discrimination Act 2004, Australian Human Rights Commission Act 1986, Disability Discrimination Act 1992 and Sex Discrimination Act 1984.

The controversy surrounding 18c is interesting in that other restrictions on free speech, including these statutes, do not receive the same scrutiny or public criticism. For example, the implementation of defamation laws and offensive language legislation fly mostly under the radar. Yet mention “18c” or “racial discrimination” and it’s a different story.

“Ultimately, this failure to amend 18C weakens our democracy and limits our ability to fully realise other human rights,” Augusto Zimmermann recently wrote in an article for The Australian.

But arguably, the opposite is true. Ensuring 18c is as comprehensively protective as possible ensures that racial minorities will be best placed to realise their other human rights.

Back to what Yassmin Abdel-Maggied said on Anzac Day.

Abdel-Maggied’s post was not racially discriminatory, or illegal under any other discrimination laws. It was not directed towards another person. It did not vilify. Yes, it was controversial. But the point of free speech is that its protections extend to unpopular, contentious opinions; even those made by Muslim women of colour that question our white history.

It would do well to remember that.


Brittney Rigby is the Human Rights Defender Student Editor for semester 1, 2017. Read more about our internships.


Photo : By Erin Maclean -, CC BY-SA 2.0,