Apr 9, 2014

A hard case of harmful speech: should we ban anti-vaccination talk?

There are better examples of speech that causes harm than the ones we're debating in relation to the Racial Discrimination Act. What about the anti-vaxxers?

Bernard Keane — Politics editor

Bernard Keane

Politics editor

While the government’s proposals to amend section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act have prompted considerable debate, it hasn’t been particularly useful debate — plenty of heat and not much light, as Tim Soutphommasane described it, and people taking more or less standard positions — the Left strongly opposed, middle-aged white men (like me) supportive.

One interesting feature is that Holocaust denialism has emerged as a totemic example of what is supposedly beyond the pale in public debate. Labor repeatedly challenged the government to explain whether Holocaust denialism would be allowed under the new laws, if enacted; this week, Fairfax asked us to be alarmed that the changes proposed by Attorney-General George Brandis would allow Holocaust denialism, according to advice to the New South Wales government.

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134 thoughts on “A hard case of harmful speech: should we ban anti-vaccination talk?

  1. Limited News

    I don’t think it would be a good idea to ban discussion of the possible link between vaccines containing substances derived from peanut oil, and the recent rise of deadly nut allergies in children. If anyone knows of documents describing all the ingredients in children’s vaccines, so that parents can give informed consent, please post a link. Thanks.

  2. beachcomber

    Good logic. Being part of society involves accepting certain rules. We generally drive within the rules, behave towards each other appropriately, and reluctantly pay our share of taxes. Vaccination is a group responsibility, and is only effective with almost universal immunisation. Those that choose not to participate in a free service for community protection put everyone at risk.

    Climate Change Deniers and Sceptics are another group that peddles lies that threaten the safety of others. The storms and floods wreaking havoc about the globe are becoming more frequent and more severe as the oceans warm. More deaths will result with every year that we fail to act. Accepting the science, and failing to give these fruit loops the coverage that they don’t deserve, is long overdue.

  3. Sammy Harry

    Would we also ban the class actions against vaccines?

  4. David Hand

    Vaccination issues do not require any limitation on free speech.

    Though such opinion is demonstrably harmful, the countermeasures taken, forcing the name change of the lunatic fringe activist group along with its charity status, show that action is possible without the sledgehammer of limiting free speech.

    Getting schools and child care centres to enact policies requiring vaccination for attendees will stop the absurd fad in its tracks.

  5. Rourke

    I think somewhere a non sequitur appeared … ah, yes, the part where criminalising anti-vaccination speech would actually help anything. To be clear: I am a firm vaccination advocate. Would you ban these things … ?

    1. A grieving mother lashing out because her son’s vaccination caused debilitating illness (very rare, but it does happen)
    2. Discussion of the costs & benefits of something like the varicella vaccine, against an overwhelmingly mild disease (chickenpox) but with associated increase in a less mild disease (shingles)
    3. Reports of vaccine trials where the results were not great

    We’re a long way from terrorism here.

  6. Hugh (Charlie) McColl

    A few months ago, maybe a year or so, ABC Media Watch showed a greatest hits collection of Alan Jones’ quotes from around the time of the Cronulla riots. On the face of it, some of these quotes from Jones’ radio show would have to come close to hate speech. Has anyone ever considered whether these statements would be acceptable under a revised 18C?

  7. Sharkie

    Much of the 18C debate takes the position that the consequences of racial and religious vilification can be summed up by the phrase “hurt feelings”. Brandis bandies about this nonsense on a regular basis.
    In this article BK ignores the fact that racial and religious vilification has consequences for minorities in terms of economic empowerment. Try getting a lease, loan or job interview if your name is Mohamed, Ali or Fatimah. I’m tipping people with names like George, Andrew, or Alan don’t even consider the economic impacts on minorities of their words or actions.

  8. Jeff McIlwain

    some would say it’s the not the speech but rather the action of not-vaccinationing which causes the harm. if i tell you to jump off a bridge and you do it whose fault is it?

  9. Jeff McIlwain

    as opposed to the 18c business, where it is the speech itself which causes harm

  10. Altakoi

    No-one draws a distinction between freedom of speech, which was originally the right to express a view freely, and freedom to publish, which would be the freedom to use technical means to amplify your speech in the public domain. Until the internet this didn’t matter as much as it does now, since publishing any view to massive numbers of people has virtually no cost. So you could ban dissemination of views via certain means – the internet – without impairing a persons freedom to hold them, or talk the leg of anyone who will listen per se.

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