After the Australian Law Reform Commission this week panned the federal government’s new sedition laws, it’s time for a reminder that Canberra is not the only source of threats to free speech. Racial vilification laws are also back in the news, with a remarkable case from Western Australia.

WA introduced new racial vilification laws last year after a spate of white supremacist attacks in Perth. But the first person charged under them was an Aboriginal girl in Kalgoorlie.

It was alleged that, in the course of an altercation in the street with a white woman, the girl kicked her and called her a “white sl-t”.

Yesterday the Kalgoorlie Children’s Court sentenced her to community service for the kicking, but threw out the racial vilification charge.

According to The Australian, the magistrate “found that the girl’s one-off slur in a heated confrontation did not constitute ‘serious, substantial or severe’ racial harassment”.

The story is a perfect parable of how government action works.

Marginalised groups turn to the state for protection; they succeed in enacting new laws, but they cannot change the state’s fundamental nature as an agent for the rich and powerful. So in time the laws are used against the very groups that demanded them.

Supporters of these laws may say that the dismissal of the charge shows the fears of free-speech advocates are unfounded. But for people who have to defend themselves in court against absurd claims, that’s not much consolation.

The Australian filed the story under “world wide weird”, and making a laughingstock out of WA over racial vilification may indeed be the best response. But we should never forget that freedom is a serious business.

Peter Fray

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