High price to pay in defence of free speech

Paul Murray – The West Australian February 2, 2011

Make sense of this.

Someone reacts to words said in a Perth nightclub and slashes the offender’s face open with a broken glass. Court penalty: 18 months jail.

Another person reacts to words said outside a South Perth supermarket and gives the offender a nasty racist spray, which he later posts triumphantly on the internet. Court penalty: three years jail.

Is that balanced justice?

It’s an unfortunate consequence of defending the principles of free speech that you sometimes end up appearing to be in the corner of people with whom you disagree violently – and disrespect even more.

That’s pretty much the case with Brendan Lee O’Connell, who this week became the first person to be jailed under WA’s racial vilification laws.

O’Connell seems to be an unpleasant prat with some extreme political views and very poor judgment in not getting a good lawyer who could have provided a sane legal defence rather than the ravings he offered on his own account.

But that doesn’t mean he should be behind bars.

And it certainly doesn’t mean he should get a sentence so out of kilter with that regularly handed down by WA courts for crimes of extreme personal violence.

As editor of this newspaper in the 1990s, I opposed the institution of these laws, fearing that in an increasingly politically correct society they would end up being misused. I got pretty tough treatment by the Jewish lobby at that time and expect nothing different for this effort.

The day that I feared arrived on Monday when Justice John Wisbey sentenced O’Connell harshly after a jury found him guilty on six of seven charges of racial vilification.

Justice Wisbey, labelling O’Connell an “intelligent man with an irrational hatred of Jewish people”, said the only appropriate form of punishment would be an immediate term of “severe” imprisonment and, strangely, that he was sending a message to people who might share the convicted man’s views.

I hope they’re trembling in their boots in Tehran, Cairo, Riyadh, Amman, Khartoum, Damascus, Tripoli, Sanaa, Baghdad, Beirut, Kabul, Islamabad, not to mention Jakarta and Kuala Lumpur, or anywhere else in the Middle East and Muslim world where O’Connell’s views are mainstream for tens of millions of people.

Not right, just unexceptional.

O’Connell is a member of a group called Friends of Palestine which decided to hold a protest outside a South Perth supermarket in 2009 against the sale of Israeli oranges.

Pathetic, provocative and ultimately meaningless – but completely within his democratic rights.

Stanley Keyser, a member of the Australasian Union of Jewish Students, attended the demonstration with a friend, Timothy Peach, to observe and hand out leaflets supporting their side of the argument.

It’s also their democratic right to engage in a political discourse, which is what they did by entering the fray.

Mr Peach, 19, told the court he was “angry”, “confused” and “offended” by O’Connell when he started to film the two Jewish men and argue with them about their religion.

What should a Jew expect at an anti-Israel protest?

It’s obvious that what was happening was essentially political in nature, even though it came to be poisoned by racism.

Legitimate political discourse should be protected by a number of High Court rulings, but unfortunately O’Connell doesn’t appear to have had the wit to use them in his own rambling defence.

Some of the reporting of this case highlights the extreme sensitivity in the community to issues of race, merely reflected – if not magnified – by the media.

“A Perth man who posted a video online showing him arguing with a Jewish man and calling him a ‘racist, homicidal maniac’ has been found guilty of racial hatred,” was the first paragraph in the AAP report of the judgment.

So is it now racist to call someone a racist? Or is it racist to call someone a homicidal maniac? Or is it only racist to call a Jew a racist homicidal maniac?

Surely not. Have we become so instinctively PC that we no longer distinguish between what is racist and what is just stupid?

This newspaper reported that the offending words by O’Connell to Mr Keyser were that Judaism was a “religion of racism, hate, homicide and ethnic cleansing”. Later, he filmed himself at the Perth Bell Tower calling Judaism a “death cult” before posting the video online.

When I debated this issue on air with Steve Lieblich, the director of public affairs for the Jewish Community Council of WA, he said O’Connell should have drawn a distinction between the Jewish religion and the state of Israel.

Frankly, that’s a line many opponents of Israel are unwilling to make. In fact, it’s a distinction that Israel itself doesn’t appear to concede.

Mr Lieblich refused to accept that O’Connell’s protest was political or that the sentence was out of kilter with those for extreme personal violence handed down by WA courts.

“I think it was a victory for decency and against bigotry and prejudice,” Mr Lieblich said.

So does all criticism of Israel inexorably find its way to being racist unless those who disagree with it watch every word they utter? Must opponents meticulously pull apart the threads of religion and politics when arguing about Israel?

And is that the real game here – silencing dissent against Israel and not protecting Jews from a legacy of verbal vilification?

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